Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An Encouraging Conversation with Voice of Reason

Voice of Reason [1] stopped by my office today. She has been, like me, working on an article project (though her work is about three to four months more advanced). And like me, she's apparently been producing a lot of words with very few great thoughts to hold it all together.

We've been talking a lot about our frustrations with writing, and how they're producing doubts about the new projects we're working on, respectively. The underlying theme to all these discussions is: "Why can't I be smarter?"

And somehow, over this weekend, we both realized an important truth: the first book project -- the one that made us feel like we knew something -- didn't start out as a first book. Before that, it was a dissertation, and an article or two along the way. And before that, it was three years of research, reading, fumbling, and following dead-end roads. The lesson here is that bumping into walls is part of the process.  And it's part of the process that you have to repeat with every damn thing you write.

"You mean I have to keep feeling dumb every time I do this?" I ask myself.  Well, yes. And that's going to suck.  But knowing that it's part of the process is kind of like the doctor saying, "Now, this is going to hurt." It doesn't stop it from hurting, but it lets you know that the pain is normal, expected, and most of all, temporary.


[1] To those new to the blog, Voice of Reason is a friend, colleague, and former neighbor who reacts to situations with an equanimity and grace that I stand in awe of. She is who I want to be when I grow up.

10 comments:

Comrade Physioprof said...

This is a very excellent post. Scientific research is exactly this way as well.

Historiann said...

All of the above, plus you don't have your grad student friends/colleaues around any more with whom to commiserate or to offer reassurance that you're not the only one feeling stupid.

Something I've found that is very liberating in terms of teh stupid is doing research in another language. If I feel stupid, it doesn't feel like it's so much my fault! (Yay?) Or maybe it just feels like more of a challenge on so many levels that I don't worry about feeling stupid, I worry that I will never make sense of the chicken scratch I see in the tomes unfolded before me in the archives.

(You've written perceptively about this in the recent past--about how you freak out for the first few days back in the archive, feeling like you can't read or understand a single thing and that you never will.)

ramblingsofaphdstudent said...

As a baby academic, it's a bit relaxing to hear that those who are further along in their careers feel this same way. I often think that I'm just not smart enough to do this...then I get over that hump and have a moment of confidence! haha!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Savor those moments, Ramblings. Maybe write a note to your future self that you *are* smart enough. Because believe me, future self will forget.

The Mad Dreamer said...

I'm with rambling. This is very relaxing to hear.

ntbw said...

Oh, I feel dumb all the time! Between the other languages thing and the latest theory mysteries (honestly, trying to cope with post human whatever, object oriented ontology blah blah blah makes me miss grappling with poststructuralism in grad school), I think must surely have been smarter 10 years ago. BUT the other side is that I think it is hugely liberating, and in some ways easier, to write a book that is, from the beginning, a book and not seminar papers that became dissertation chapters etc. My books after the book that started as a diss have all been MY projects; they never had to satisfy the desires of a committee or a grad studies office.

Susan said...

The other challenge is that when you are in grad school, you generally have fewer distractions, which makes it easier to carve out time...

And yes, the fact that you write book 2 without a dissertation makes it much harder..

Bavardess said...

So this periodic reeling between feeling kinda smart and feeling really quite stupid is going to go on for the rest of my life? But I, too, find your post reassuring. At least now I know it's normal!

Anonymous said...

Several years ago, the Journal of Cell Science published an essay called "The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research." http://jcs.biologists.org/content/121/11/1771.full

I make all of my research students read it...

Comrade Physioprof said...

Oh, speaking of this topic, the book "Ignorance: How It Drives Science" by Stuart Firestein is really, really good!

(Disclaimer: The author is a longtime friend and colleague.)