Dancing the night away

One of the main goals of Project Renaissance is to give me a chance to explore some new interests and pick up some old ones again. I also want to challenge myself with new things. It’s easy, when life is tough, to just keep going, doing the same things without seeking out new opportunities and interests. It can be hard work to do that, and I think for too long I’ve been coming home after work, collapsing on the sofa for the rest of the evening, and then feeling vaguely upset with myself that another evening has passed without much happening.

Gretchen Rubin identifies this as the ‘atmosphere of growth’ in her First Splendid Truth of Happiness:

To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Now, to be perfectly frank, there was always something that bothered me a bit about how this is put. Maybe it’s because I’m British, but ‘atmosphere of growth’ sounded a bit – well, new-agey and self-helpy and too vague to really mean anything to me. But I do see the point – that is, that a life that is just coasting along, where everything is fine but nothing new or challenging is happening, is not going to lead to happiness (for most people, anyway).

It finally dawned on me that I’ve been unconsciously testing this theory for the last year and a half. After A. and I met, we started going to ballroom dancing classes together. Almost from the very beginning, it’s been one of the things I look forward to most in our week. That’s partly due to the hilarious teacher, and the other lovely people in our class, but it wasn’t until I reread The Happiness Project recently that I realised those aren’t what were making it such a source of fun for me. It was that I was learning a new skill, something that challenged me, not so much that I wanted to give up, but enough that I wanted, and could, get good at it.

In the last few months, we’ve also been taking additional private dance classes in preparation for our wedding. We’ve learned a fairly complex routine, and we’ve been practising all summer. It’s been the most fun I’ve had in a long while, and it’s because it’s a challenge. We really struggled with some of the steps to begin with, but now we can see how much we’ve improved. I’m a perfectionist at heart, and I want to keep getting better with this new skill.

Gretchen says that there are three types of fun: relaxing fun (like watching a film), accommodating fun (like going to a party with friends) and challenging fun (like my dance class). The latter is the most rewarding, but it takes the most effort – you have to put energy into it, it can sometimes be frustrating, even upsetting – but because it’s challenging, it’s ultimately the most satisfying. Relaxing fun, which is probably the kind we all do most often, is easiest, because it’s the most passive, but it brings very little return – that feeling I had of being unsatisfied after an evening vegging in front of the telly.

Now that I’ve recognised one source of challenging fun in my life, I want to get more, even if it takes more energy. Crafting, reading (when it’s done actively, rather than passively – more on that soon), maybe picking up my violin again – these could all be ready-made sources of more challenging fun for me. I just have to seek them out, and overcome that initial pull to the more relaxing thing.

That’s all for this week – I’ll leave you with a taste of the sort of thing that I’ve been enjoying!


WorkRemix: not the post I was going to write

I was all geared up to write something about the beginning of my career planning journey, how I was going to tackle the hunt, the transition from academia to a new field, and whether or not to keep the door open to go back.

The first step of the journey has come on me more suddenly than I thought – I have my first job interview tomorrow. A part-time, fairly basic role within my university. Having not had an interview for 3 years, and this being the first time I’ve tried to translate my academic skills into another role, the prospect finds me rather more nervous than I thought.

I’ll report on how it goes!

Habits: Comparing Franklin and Lewis

One of my fascinations, and an inspiration for starting this project, is the daily routine of other people. It’s interesting to see how others lay out their day, what they prioritise, how much time they leave for certain activities. Two of the most popular are the daily routines of Benjamin Franklin and C.S. Lewis, both of which I read about some time ago, and both of which stuck with me. I thought it would be a good idea, as I think about my own daily routine, to consider why both of theirs seem to have struck a chord.

First, Franklin. His daily routine has been discussed by a number of bloggers, and his ‘moral perfection’ plan inspired Gretchen Rubin in her Happiness Project, which is also one of my inspirations. Here is the ideal day he lays out for himself:

From Autobiography, 1791

From Autobiography, 1791

What do we have? Three hours for getting up, breakfasting and preparing for the day; eight hours of work in total; two hours for dinner; four hours for supper, entertainment and relaxation, and reflection; seven hours sleep.

Meanwhile, C.S. Lewis describes his ‘ideal’ daily routine based on the time he spent at a place called Bookham:

I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better…  At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road…  The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, as I took it as Bookham on those (happily numerous) occasions when Mrs. Kirkpatrick was out; the Knock himself disdained this meal. For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably… At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven. (Surprised by Joy, 1955: extract found at Daily Routines.)

He gives us a little less specific detail than Franklin, but we can still see that we have four hours of work in the morning, and two in the evening, an hour each for breakfast and lunch, a two-hour walk in the afternoon, and four hours in the evening for supper and entertainment. He goes to bed a little later than Franklin did, but also rises later – he doesn’t tell us exactly when, but my guess would be not before seven if he has breakfast at eight, making eight hours of sleep.

It’s interesting to see how they compare. Franklin has two extra hours of work, and also ‘looks over accounts’ during his lunch hour, while Lewis has lighter reading after he returns from his walk for an hour before he settles to work again at five. Both have four hours in the evening to enjoy a meal and relaxation, but Franklin adds a longer period of reflection in the morning, while Lewis suggests that the time for solitary reflection is during his afternoon walk.

It’s striking how balanced both these days seem to be. In each twenty-four hour period, there is a healthy dose each of work, rest and fun – exactly what we might consider a balanced life to be. When I read something like this and compare it to my own current daily routine, I rather despair of myself.

But hang on. Review both Lewis and Franklin again and think about what is missing. There is no mention of housework, cooking, running errands, preparing meals, tidying up, speaking to family or friends, nor the myriad of other tasks that can consume a significant chunk of my day. Let’s not forget, both Franklin and Lewis had staff – people who took on household chores so they didn’t have to.

Much as I would love to think that employing a housekeeper or two would be the solution to all my problems, it’s clearly not an option. But it puts a rather different perspective on these idealised days. How would their routines look if they lived the life that I live? It may not be realistic to strive for a day like theirs, because the list of things I have to fit into my day, and the balance of life in the modern world, has shifted. It’s worth keeping this in mind as I try to craft a new routine, one that brings balance to my life as it is now – not a life as it would have been fifty or two hundred years ago.


More books please!

I used to read all the time. As I child, I was a fast and voracious reader. I would sit on my bed and devour every book I could get my hands on. Raised bilingually, I read a lot of German children’s books, like Michael Ende and Erich Kästner, alongside C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett and Tolkien. I loved reading, and it was usually the first thing I said when someone asked me ‘What do you do for fun?’ I took an English Literature AS Level (we read Wuthering Heights and Othello) until I abandoned it for other subjects in my A Level year.

Since university, though, my reading has taken a downturn. Don’t get me wrong, I still read. Pullman, Patrick Ness, Suzanne Collins (loved the Hunger Games), more Lewis, Guy Gavriel Kay, Isaac Asimov and more. I read a lot during the year I lived in London and had an hour-long commute twice a day – I got through seventy-four books that year. But notice the authors – lots of fantasy and science-fiction, not so much literature.

In fact, I’ve very rarely tackled any of the great classics. Sure, I’ve read Austen, Dickens, Brontë (Jane Eyre was a revelation in my teens), even some Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Tolstoy (Anna Karenina). But I’ve always been nervous of the classics, as if I don’t have the necessary tools to read them.

Fact is, I read mostly for pleasure, late at night, to wind down. Not the time to be exerting my brain, normally, and I often feel like this type of reading wouldn’t let me do credit to great literature. The classics need attention and patience and time, and so often I feel like I have none of those.

Then, a couple of months ago, I found Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide To the Classical Education You Never Had in our library. This is a guide to how to read classic books – the method by which you read, annotate, summarise, and analyse. This is how great books can enrich your life, I felt, but it demanded commitment, and I shied away from it. I couldn’t possibly commit to reading all of the books on the WEM list (as it’s known) – could I?

There are people out there doing it, of course. I’ve found a couple of blogs chronicling the journey, and it is so tantalising. That’s what I would like to be doing. Or something like it.

I haven’t decided yet whether to pursue that course of action, and I do have to consider carefully the time I have. Yes, Project Renaissance is designed to help me take on some goals and tackle long-put-off projects – but not at the expense of sanity and having time to eat and sleep. Still, I can’t quite resist the temptation to at least consider how I could tackle some great literature.

In the meantime, I want to read more, full stop. I popped into our central library at the weekend, and picked up a great little book (sitting next to The Well-Educated Mind on the shelf of books-about-books) that I recommend to anyone wanting to be inspired to read more.

Stop What You're Doing and Read This!, Vintage Books, 2011

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!, Vintage Books, 2011

Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! is a collection of essays by famous authors and literary folk, including Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon and Jeanette Winterson. Each of the authors talks about what reading means to them. There is so much gold in here about the pleasures of reading, but I think my favourite one so far is Tim Parks philosophical essay on Mindful Reading.

The excitement of reading is the precarious one of being alive now, intensely mentally silently alive, and reacting from moment to moment, in the most liquid and intimate sphere of the mind, to someone else’s elusive construction of the precarious business of being alive now. (p.73)

How perfectly put! That’s what I want – to engage my mind, all of it, in the intense purpose of having a conversation in my mind with an author, perhaps long dead, and finding out what they thought about the world, and what I think about the world.

The logistics of making time for a reading project still elude me – suggestions welcome – but more reading generally? More books in my life? Yes, please!

WorkRemix: The illusion of control

This is the first post on the WorkRemix side of this blog (where I pursue the reasons why academia doesn’t seem to be working for me and look for what might).

There are a lot of places I could start. I need to (and probably will over the next few weeks) begin to dissect exactly what has gone wrong in my working life to bring me to this point of frustration and dissatisfaction. A lot is being written around the interwebs at the moment about the endemic problems in academia, from post-docs on short-term contracts unable to find positions, overworked professors struggling with too much to do and the REF making everyone’s life difficult. Those are discussions I will engage with, but it’s not where I want to start.

I just read Cal Newport‘s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore Youand that’s where I’m going to start. Because while I was reading it, I got an insight into what is potentially the biggest problem for me right now in the job I’m in.

So Good They Can't Ignore You, by Cal Newport, 2012, Business Plus

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport, 2012, Business Plus

Newport’s thesis is that to find work you love, ignore the advice to follow your passion, and instead, cultivate skills. Get really good at something, and you will have career capital, which you can then trade in for the three things make for satisfied workers: autonomy, competence and relatedness. In particular, autonomy or control is one of the defining traits of people who have work they love. They are able to exert control over their lives and make choices about their working life, for example by negotiating with their employer for more flexibility, or by starting their own company. In each case, achieving control is a product of having career capital. (I’ll talk more about relatedness another time.)

Now, academia could be seen to fit this thesis quite well. After all, academics can have some of the highest career capital going. We’re highly trained, with skills that have taken a long time to develop, are rare (in the grand scheme of things) and valuable to society. In return, academics typically have a lot of autonomy over how they structure their working day, which projects they work on, when they take leave, and how many hours they work. The autonomy and flexibility of academia is seen as one of the great perks of the job.

Except…that’s not really what it looks like from where I’m standing. Sure, I can exert control over my day-to-day work. I get to write my own to-do lists and (within reason) set my own priorities. I can choose to take a morning off if I have an appointment, and make up for it in the evening.

But at the moment, my control over my career is very limited. If I wanted to pursue a career in academia, I would be relying on getting some funding, or a position opening up, and those occurrences are totally out of my control. I could apply for funding, but getting that is pretty much a case of potluck in today’s competitive environment. I have plenty of currency, in the shape of papers and completed research projects, but the conditions of academia at the moment mean those things are not enough to buy me control. And if the researchers are right (and I think they are), this explains partly why I feel so unhappy in work.

Newport admits that this is the case in his introduction, where he describes his own feelings when he left graduate school and began looking for an academic post.

I was on track to become a professor, which at a graduate program like MITs, is considered the only respectable path….Tugging more insistently at my attention during this period was the very real possibility that I wouldn’t end up with a professorship after all…. I had set up a meeting with my advisor to discuss my academic job search. “How bad of a school are you willing to go to?” was his opening question. The academic job market is always brutal, but in 2010, with an economy still in recession, it was especially tough… Given that my wife and I wanted to stay in the United States, and preferably on the East Coast, a choice that drastically narrowed our options, I had to face the very real possibility that my academic job search would be a bust, forcing me to essentially start from scratch in figuring out what to do with my life.” (p. xvii-xviii)

How bad of a school are you willing to go to – that is, what are you prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of your goal. That sort of talk shows just how little of a choice there is when it comes to academic careers – you go where the opening is, wherever the opening is, regardless of the sacrifices.

In the conclusion to the book, Newport describes the (happy) outcome – his search works out, he gets several offers, and is able to pursue his research in a location he likes. But a number of circumstances came together to allow this to occur, and his career capital was only one of them. I’m not denying that he did the right things – pursued the right research, got himself noticed by the right people – but a lot of post-grads do those things, and the job hunt doesn’t work out for them. Career capital clearly isn’t always enough by itself.

And even once you get to be an academic, I’m not sure that the control you have is anything more than an illusion. Sure, you have the option to work at any time of day that suits you – but what good is that when the amount of work you have dictates that you work every available hour? What good is the ability to determine your own research agenda when you are reliant on the inexplicable decision-making of an external agency to fund it, and the REF to grade it highly in order to continue? What kind of control is it when you know that, in order to progress your career, you have to move to a different country or continent, and that’s your only choice other than leaving? That’s not autonomy, not in any meaningful sense of the word.

I suppose my point would be that I think control comes it different forms. It’s certainly possible, once you’re a settled professor, to exert some control over these issues. But as an early career academic without a permanent position, I’m reliant on so many other factors to come together to allow my career to work out. I can build as much career capital as I like, but if the market for those skills is totally saturated, is it actually any good to me? After all, Newport’s theory hinges on the idea that the career capital you build is valuable to someone. What happens if the things you have been taught to believe are valuable turn out to be nowhere near enough?

Despite this, I am actually a fan of Newport’s approach, and I think it will help me going forward. I can be liberated from the pervasive idea that my next step should be to find out what I’m passionate about, and focus on where my career capital can take me next, outside of the academic world. I just wish this book had existed a few years ago. If you’re a post-grad, or post-doc (or in fact anyone who wants a career they enjoy), read it right now.

Habits: A typical day

One of the biggest inspirations for Project Renaissance was my realisation that I do many things habitually. Some of these things are good things: I clean my teeth, I shower, I eat breakfast.

Other things – not so much. I have a lot of bad habits around internet and media consumption, which is a huge time and energy suck. I have some bad habits around work and procrastination, which probably started out as avoidance tactics, and have become habitual.

Habits are powerful things: we do so much unconsciously, and having a habit for something allows you to bypass the decision-making part of your brain, leaving more mental bandwidth for other things. The habits we develop, therefore, have a huge impact on how our life works on a day-to-day level.

I think there’s a lot I could do to increase my happiness and satisfaction in life if I change some of my habits. So the first thing I want to tackle is to break down my daily routines and look for things that I do every day, both bad and good, and how I can shift my routines to incorporate more good habits and eliminate some of the not-so-good ones.

My current daily routine (such as it is), looks something like this: (this is for weekdays)

  • Getting up: this has wildly fluctuated recently, but my alarm goes off at 6.50, and I am normally out of bed around 7.20. I would really like to reclaim this half hour from the snooze button to give me more time in the morning.
  • I wash my hair every other day, otherwise it’s just a quick shower or a wash, dress, apply a touch of makeup (5 minutes only!). If I’ve washed my hair, drying and styling takes about ten minutes extra.
  • I head downstairs, feed the cat if my fiance hasn’t done so already, put on a pot of tea, make my lunch, and have breakfast. Sometimes I watch BBC Breakfast while I’m finishing my tea.
  • I clean my teeth, and am normally ready to head out of the door to work any time between 8 and 8.45.

Because of the nature of my work, I don’t have defined office hours, but my fiance normally stops by the office to pick me up around 5.30 to 6.00 pm. I would really like this time to become a bit more consistent, but at the moment, that could be tricky.

  • Once we’re home, normally around six, the cat gets fed and watered, and we normally have a cup of tea straight away.
  • I do all the cooking in our house, which normally occupies me for anything between ten minutes and half an hour on a week night.
  • By the time we’ve eaten and cleaned up, it’s normally about eight o’clock.
  • Bedtime has varied wildly recently as well – if the TV is on, I normally can’t help watching the new at 10 pm, and go to bed after that. It’s a rare night that I get to bed before 10, and normally is any time between 11 and midnight.

Typing it all out like this is enlightening. There are lots of issues to address, but the first things that strike me:

  • Getting up and going to sleep: I think I would feel a lot more settled if these times could be a bit more consistent, at least during the working week.
  • Ditto for leaving for work and arriving home. I think I need to define a morning, homecoming and pre-bed routine.
  • My main chunk of interrupted leisure time is after dinner. I want to use this time better.
  • Similarly, there is often a little bit of time between coming home and starting dinner. I actually have no idea what I normally do here, but it’s time that could perhaps be used more fruitfully.

We don’t have many regular evening commitments, except for a Wednesday evening dance class, and a bi-weekly German conversation group I try to go to when I have the energy.

There is a lot I can work on here: time to ponder where to start!

What about you: what’s your daily routine like, and how would you like to change it?

What is Project Renaissance?

I’ve called my journey of self-exploration, change and learning Project Renaissance.

Project, because I want to approach this in a concerted, organised fashion, complete with planning and reviews (there could even be spreadsheets!)

Renaissance, for two reasons: first, because of its association with the term Renaissance Man. This is a fairly common term which Wikipedia seems to define as equivalent to polymath, i.e. a person who is talented or skilled in several different areas. However, I’ve seen Renaissance Man used a little bit more broadly, to mean someone who is interested in many different things, and pursues knowledge in several areas. It is the opposite of being very specialised. This project is going to cover pretty much every area of my life, so a broad term seemed appropriate.

The second reason goes back to the original French meaning of renaissance rebirth. As I mentioned here, I have a lot of change coming my way over the next few months. Recently I’ve felt that, for a variety of reasons, I’ve forgotten who I truly am. I’ve lost a sense of what I enjoy and what I like, amidst all the stress and duties and responsibilities. I’ve lost the ability to stretch myself, and I feel as if I’m not growing as a person. These are all things I want to change.

I’ll be tackling three main areas, and you can expect to see posts from me on each area every week.

1. Habits of mind, habits of life (Mondays)

My first priority is to get some of my routines back in order. My life has become very disordered, everything from the time I get up to the time I go to bed has no set structure. I want to experiment with some more defined routines, and add things into my daily or weekly routine to see if that helps me settle into a better pattern. I want to look at some of my bad habits and how I can eliminate them. I’ll be researching other people’s routines and what I can learn from them, and I’ll be doing several 30-day trials to test out new habits.

2. WorkRemix (Wednesdays)

This is where I’ll be putting all my explorations of work and career change. I’ll explore the reasons why academia no longer works for me, and the associated, and very confused, emotions I’m experiencing as a result. I’ll be chronicling how I look for new work, reading books on the topic of work in the modern world, and all things related to work-life balance.

3. Renaissance Woman (Fridays)

This is where everything about the myriad of interests I’d like to explore goes. A non-exhaustive list: I’d like to embark on a course of autodidacticism (self-learning), particularly around history, literature, and languages. I’m fascinated by old buildings and architectural history, gardening, and all things related to heritage (this, incidentally, is my academic area too, but I’ll be branching out widely). I’m considering starting a reading project based on Susan Wise Bauer’s Well-Educated Mind. I’d like to pursue a self-study of mathematics which I started a while ago and dropped, and learn a new language. I’ll be discussing what it even means to be an educated or accomplished woman in the 21st century. I’m a knitter, so there may be occasional posts about that and other crafting and home-related issues. My goal is to give myself free rein to explore anything and everything that interests me, but to try and use the time well, to really find areas that I love and pursue them. I’ll be considering carefully how much I can fit into my life that enriches it, without feeling too stressed and overwhelmed. And, of course, the blog itself is part of this journey of growth and stretching into new areas.