My diamond shoes are too tight

I’ve never had to work hard at anything. I know that sounds like my head is so far up my arse I couldn’t smell a fart in a car, but it means I don’t know how to work hard at something. My school reports all said ‘top of the class without putting in any effort’; I cruised through my psych degree barely-and-rarely sober; my masters didn’t challenge me because most of my subjects were taught at an undergrad level (even though I was paying masters course fees, and yes, UTS, I’m still pissed off about that). The trapeze course was challenging, but that’s because it was physically hard and I’m a lazy cow. And I’ve never had a job that’s required my brain to do anything other than keep me breathing (gonna get in trouble at work for that one).

Which is how I ended up at this point: in my mid thirties, doing a doctorate and not knowing how to work hard. Not knowing how to work, let alone work my arse off. Not knowing how to push my brain because I’ve always been able to wing it and still do well. I’m not an over-achiever, I’m a lazy-achiever. Actually, that’s bullshit: I’m an under-achiever.

As you can imagine, being Lazy McLazypants and doing a research doctorate don’t go too well together. I’ve blamed the internet but the problem was there before this blog, before twitter, before email and ohmygodlookatthisshinyshiny. I don’t need the internet to distract me because I am one big distraction machine. I’ve fallen way behind in my reading and it’s hard to talk in any detail about what I’m researching because I haven’t thought enough about it – which is lucky, because after two sentences, people’s eyes glaze over anyway.

But this year, things are going to be different. We’re moving to a new place where the study is bright and sunny, and I am going to surprise myself with how much work I get done.

Then I found this article (via The Thesis Whisperer) and nodded so hard my head almost fell off: Learning to work, by Virginia Valian:

“The problem is a luxury. It can only surface if one has been relatively well-educated and if the work in question intrinsically allows for self-development and self-fulfillment,” (p. 163).

And there’s my privilege right there. Talk about #firstworldproblem. Oh waaaaah, I couldn’t be bothered doing my fulfilling and intellectually stimulating work. As K would say, my diamond shoes are too tight.

“I had had a work problem all my life, but I didn’t know it until college. The symptoms in college were straightforward. I never studied, I seldom went to class; yet I defined myself as a future psychologist and had no questions about the desirability of doing meaningful intellectual work for the rest of my life… I drew a blank whenever I considered my future… I wrote my papers only at the last minute, and I never once worked an intellectual problem through to its conclusion. I did enough to get by,” (p. 164).

Valian wrote this in 1977 but she is writing about me. And, I suspect, some of you.

“It occurred to me that mental work is like sex in certain respects, although at first it seemed a bizarre comparison. The most important aspect of the analogy was the idea that work was natural. I had always thought of work as something I had to make myself do, something I didn’t intrinsically enjoy. The analogy suggested that I was getting in my own way, that I was preventing myself from enjoying myself. It wasn’t that I had to learn somehow to force myself to work, but rather to remove the roadblocks in the way of enjoyment,” (p. 165).

Unlike Valian, I’m not daunted by the work – I just can’t seem to make myself do the work. A guy I knew at uni used to say that the hardest part of going for a run every day is putting on your shoes. I can’t put on my shoes.

Because if I’m honest, I don’t want to get stuck into my doctorate because if I start it then I’m closer to finishing it. And then what? What if I discover that I’m not as good as I like to think I am? What if, even after I become Dr News with Nipples, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life? Those are the two things that freak me out the most. I’ve never known what I want to do for a career. I’ve approached each job as ‘sure, I’ll do this for a while and then fall into something else’. It means I avoid making decisions or thinking Big Grown-up Thoughts.

“The fourth rule was to ignore thoughts about the end product and how the end product would be received. I could too easily find myself inhabiting a fantasy world in which my thesis led to fame and renown. Not only was this eventuality extremely unlikely, but it led me further away from, rather than closer to, my goal of discovering the pleasures of the process of work. I wanted to work not because of the supposed effect of my work on others, but for the gratifications, to me, of working. My fantasies made the reality of my barely begun thesis look so shabby I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” (p. 168).

Yep, she’s talking about me. This is just spooky.

“Before my work program, that is, before I was able to work, I didn’t know how I spent my days, except that I never seemed to have enough time or energy to do things I wanted to do. By the end of a day, I would have accomplished nothing, have no idea where the time had gone, and then be very depressed. I felt so guilty about not working that I couldn’t do anything else either, because I should have been spending that time working. But since I couldn’t work when I “should”, I often spent the allotted time doing nothing, literally nothing,” (p. 176).

So, all I need to do now is convince myself that I really enjoy working. How hard can it be?

52 responses to “My diamond shoes are too tight

  1. Oh god. This is me, right here, right now.

    Especially this bit:
    “I felt so guilty about not working that I couldn’t do anything else either, because I should have been spending that time working. But since I couldn’t work when I “should”, I often spent the allotted time doing nothing, literally nothing”

    At the moment I’m just working on showing up to the lab every day. Even if I end up doing nothing. But the thing is, I’m already at the end of my fourth year and still have so much to do. The next six months are going to be hell.

    • Hi Teresa, welcome to the News with Nipples. It’s good to know that it’s not just us, right? And also that this problem has been around for ages. No one talkes about the process of doing a doctorate – even the basic stuff about what programs are available that will make things easier (Scrivener? Endnote? Mendelay? Envivo?). I’ve tried to talk about it at the meetings with other post-grads, but they all act as though I’m an idiot. Everyone wants to pretend that the most difficult part of doing a doctorate is the writing. Well, the writing is the easy bit for me. The difficult part is how you do it.

  2. You’re channelling me!

  3. This is me. Coasting must be my middle name.

  4. Absolutely. It’s no wonder drop out rates approximate 50%. Many programmes just don’t offer the support. It gets so much easier once you’ve started making friends and finding allies.

    Oh, and I’ve found Endnote to be sufficient, at least for my science-y writing.

  5. “I felt so guilty about not working that I couldn’t do anything else either, because I should have been spending that time working. But since I couldn’t work when I “should”, I often spent the allotted time doing nothing, literally nothing”

    yep, i have to agree with Teresa on this one, i spend a shit load of time thinking of how hard i should be working while i should be working and i have a hard job to do…… always leaves me wondering how i manage to still do it…

  6. Um, YES. I dropped out of college after two years and 19 credit hours completed, because I had cruise control on for so long that I couldn’t snap the fuck out of it. I was used to winging it, and I’d like to say that didn’t serve me in college — but it did sometimes.

    But I didn’t even want to get out of the door to class, and that’s where it fell apart. I had this perception that I was smart enough, but I felt so awkward and out of place in my classes that I didn’t want to bother being there for the work — I’d just wing it before tests and call it could.

    In fact, I now work at home and should be working RIGHT NOW. So, um, gonna go do that. 😀

  7. I’ve received a lot of praise for becoming a lawyer, what with all the work and licensing exams involved, but the truth is that it was the laziest choice my over-privileged self could make, and I made it in order to avoid making any REAL choices about my future. I was paralyzed by my cluelessness, and excessively bored at the prospect of seeking an unconventional path (because, uh, THAT is a lot of work). So I went to law school, did the BARE MINIMUM, always at the LAST MINUTE, and got by. Now I have a degree many would and could use much more effectively – and I don’t even use it at all. I haven’t practiced law in over a year and have no clue what the future holds.

    Taking the path of least resistance, for a privileged person, can often look like hard work. But the really hard work would be confronting my privilege and doing something that wasn’t basically handed to me on a stick.

    • Hi quazydellasue, welcome to the News with Nipples. This is perfect: Taking the path of least resistance, for a privileged person, can often look like hard work. But the really hard work would be confronting my privilege and doing something that wasn’t basically handed to me on a stick. That is everything exactly.

  8. This is me too, though I’m not doing the Phd and am pretty sure I should probably never attempt it… My mother criticised my year 12 marks by saying “I had skated on my brain.” Unfortunately she was right (my mother does have occasional insightful moments)… I skated through my undergrad, spent so much time fucking around researching for my honours thesis that I only spent 8 weeks actually writing the damn thing… my Law exams were open book and I had a boyfriend who was 2 years ahead of me so I could cram and use his amazingly amazing notes… my creative writing degree was one I worked hard at but I felt this terrible crushing “oh mi god what am I doing here? Some of these people are already published authors and every one else are fucking amazing writers and I suck, SUCK!”

    Now I’m doing the career assisting, cannot afford to be mummy-tracked because oh shit! Single mother, didn’t plan on that happening! Masters degree… and even though I am enjoying the subject matter, really enjoying actually, I still find myself researching way more than I need to, chasing down irrelevant rabbit holes, and then getting myself stuck in the hole of “I suck”…. before I finally force myself to turn in something I can see logic holes the size of Saturn in. And then I get a distinction? What the?

    I know my essay layout kicks ass- for which I thank Scrivener, which totally fits with my chaotic style of information gathering and writing in dribs and drabs and constant editing (which often results in me writing 2000 words and discarding all but 500) plus the export to Word is convenient and simple (I hate Word with a firey passion because it sucks and it thinks for itself- did I ask you to auto format that? NO! and resent having to use it at work).

    Its taken me an hour to write this…

    • I hear ya. Rabbit holes and logic vacuums – I’ve got a pile of articles to read that aren’t even vaguely related to my research, but they looked interesting.

      Now, tell me all about Scrivener. I’ve only had a quick look at it. What does it do best and what’s it like to use?

      • My pile of articles not related to my subject topics is huge and if anyone at the library actually checks on what articles I access through the online databases (oh my god online full-text databases are the BEST THING EVAH!) they would see that during non-semester time I mostly read articles about kinky sex, which have absolutely nothing to do with my degree…

        In my opinion Scrivener is the best money I have ever paid for software, I’m currently using ver 1.0 which I got in 2007? , so I can not speak about ver 2.0 though I will upgrade to 2.0 which looks even cooler (I can put stuff wherever I want on the corkboard layout? Bliss!) once I finish downloading Avatar The Last Airbender Season 2 (also that live action movie both sucked and blowed) for the Small Person (fuck i-Tunes takes forever…). What I like is the way in which substantive editing becomes so much simpler because you can choose to put sections together in different orders, and read different versions to find the best flow. And it takes much less paper than my previous method of print out every word doc- cut them out and move them around physically before cutting and pasting the various docs together in Word.

        • That’s what I want to hear. Mac or PC?

          • Mac, which is why I got Scrivener in the first place- there was nothing else for Mac I could find. I was like “Wow! I have program that works for me! Not against me! That works like my brain does.” When I go chasing rabbit holes I don’t have disturb huge chunks of text in a rewrite, which saves me so much time and unlike with using word I don’t have a billion docs labelled “xessayver1034”, every bit is all there and I can find what I’m looking for easily. I am not being paid for this endorsement.

  9. *Puts hand up* Another person you’re channelling!
    I have had FIVE weeks off! FIVE!! I was supposed to completely overhaul the house and garden, as we haven’t gone away anywhere, and participate in numerous cultural activities. Guess whose house still looks like a tip (when you can get to it through the jungle of triffids) and whose kids are still poor, under-stimulated bored things?

    • Five? That’s nothin’. All I’ve done in seven weeks is read the Valian article above.

      Actually, that’s not entirely true. ManFriend and I went to NZ for a week. And packed up the house and put it all in storage. And next week we have to move it into our new place. But still, for someone who works two days a week and is supposed to be doing my PhD full time, it’s not good enough.

      What sort of cultural activities?

  10. That’s how I feel, although ivy league undergrad kicked my butt. I went back to school after working a while and could NOT write. Writers block and procrastination caught up w me. I managed and got the grades and degree but at an overwhelming cost to myself. Because I made everything 10x harder
    At the time I tried to ask around for a why and someone floated the idea of ADD. It took me a few more years and another child to really look into it and past my stereotypes and think that maybe it fit me for some things.
    In anycase, some of the tips and tricks are universal to getting started/motivated.
    there’s no easy answer and it’s really hard to find what works for you
    One thing is that I really do get focused and excited in the projects I’m interested in and if I can set aside the guilt then I can at least feel good about that and build on those successes
    Good luck.

    • Hi Jess, welcome to the News with Nipples. Thanks for the luck, reckon I’m going to need it. You mentioned tips and tricks to get you started and/or motivated – what ones have worked for you?

  11. Oh yes, you are very right about the working-discipline-and-the-attitude-towards-it-thing. I know it sounds confusing, but reading ‘How to be idle’ by Tom Hodgkinson helps a lot with that: – at least it stops you from feeling bad about not achieving things …

    Being again, too late for everything I planned for today – elke

  12. I have to put my hand up for this too. Although I almost never finished my degree because despite scoring very high in the lecture based subjects and appearing to skate through them I took several attempts to pass the clinical subjects…when the knowledge was needed at my fingertips it simply wasn’t there.

    • I’m amazed at how much knowledge I haven’t retained. I’ve been incredibly privileged to be able to do all these courses (full time and part time), but I don’t feel I’ve learned very much. I did a whole semester on neuropsychology and all I can remember is that the amygdala controls how we experience pleasure and pain.

  13. Oh God this is depressing because it is so true.
    Never studied just coasted through school and uni total shock when I got a job and I was expected to work and to a timetable and results were demanded.

    Of course uni was pre- internet days so you really had to work hard to find sufficient distractions from actually studying. Alcohol helped

  14. “nother ‘symptom’ – I sing quite well but have never learned to play an instrument because singing – hell, you don’t need to learn how to TUNE anything! You don’t need to CARRY anything! You just have to remember the damn words! And THAT’s the EASY BIT!

    So yeah – people who don’t sing as well as I do have actual CAREERS while I sing “Thomas the Tank Engine’ theme song to my 3 year old and murder or press-ganging ballads while I cook dinner….

  15. oh I agree with so much of what was said here but don’t have the energy to write it all down. Have never heard of Scrivener but How to be Idle is great. Didn’t actually find my PhD was that hard and am waiting for a job where I don’t coast, while simultaneously avoiding anything where I might – gasp – fail. Hang in there. As for what to do when you grow up – hmmm, maybe you’ll never really know!?!?! I am still waiting to be a grown up in spite of checking all the usual boxes…

  16. Oh FSM, echoing sentiments…this is me. I am lazy as fuck at work, and I got by at school/uni I don’t know how, and I feel like my thesis was such a waste of time and so dumb though it got a decent mark (and it surprised me when I actually got asked by some students of the same course whether they could use it from the archives 10 years later).

    I’m no theorist, but I’ve dabbled in some ideas over the years about how and why I might be like this, and my main conclusions are the education system and my gender.

    The education system (at least in my experience here in NZ) does not teach you “how to learn”. I did not get taught basic things like essay writing, critical thinking and analysis, and how to research. It was assumed you knew these things. Therefore, when I hit my last year of high school which required critical essay writing for exams/projects I was like “WTF? How do I DO this?!” and I ended up doing a lot of copying from encyclopedias (the cut n paste of Wikipedia from 20 years ago!). It was bordering on cheating, I know, but no one ever pulled me up on it, or taught me better. It was like because I was assumed an intelligent kid (I was), I could automatically do the work.

    As for gender, though I got all the right prompting (it was expected I’d go to uni, get a great job) how was I to know that’s what I wanted or needed, AND I saw how much more mentoring/prompting boys got (eg: the boys had more money put into their sports trips, while I was expected to gain more passive skills like crafts).

    I took my lazy study habits from high school into uni, and ended up not enjoying my time there (also because I was too busy trying to keep financially afloat by working at the same time, and pretending I was doing more work than the others – fuck I was an obnoxious early 20s git). Now, somehow, I’m a manager in a job I hate, but can stomach because it gives me a lot of freedom and good money.

    It’s taken me until now (mid-30s) to really realize what I wanted to do (being a writer) and now I have a life time of bad habits to break to really knuckle down and do a lot of catch up (all that stuff about writing your Million Bad Words before you’re good/successful? Yeah, doing that NOW, when there are much younger writers doing amazing things in my genre makes me sad and feel a bit like a failure which doesn’t help). Am I doing well at breaking the habits? Yes and no. I’ve recognized them, and have had great days at it, but I’ve also failed spectacularly on others when the lethargy and fear of failure have gripped me again.

    Oh look, I’ve written a tome. Sorry Nips. But yeah, the whole lethargy and “days spent doing absolutely nothing” and hating myself for it really poked a stick into me.

    • Don’t apologise for a long comment. I love that you have a lot to say.

      The thing that’s helped me most from the comments on this post is that it’s not just me. So, since you’re a little further ahead, how do you go about breaking the bad habits?

      • Turning off distractions, setting myself daily and even hourly goals, and literally physcially forcing myself to do it.
        I originally thought my biggest problem was environment – I needed quiet space, a good computer, uninterruptions ie: an office all to myself, and I couldn’t work in a noisy space. Since my writing has begun (a year now) I’ve discovered I can be more laid back about where I write (I can now long hand in a cafe, or on a laptop/PC in a room with other people). This came from a fear of people looking over my shoulder. This actually happened to me in my late teens when i started writing fiction, they laughed at me and said I’d never be a writer if I wrote crap like that, and I took it to heart (yes yes, I know).
        Daily goals: I set myself a word count. Hourly goals: I have to stand up and walk around, make a cup of tea, take a break, pet the cat.
        Turning off distractions: literally. No TV, no radio, no internet. I still can’t write with even my fave music in the background (even tho I can do people in the room now).
        Physicality: Almost like a psyche up, I make myself a time to be at the computer like I was starting a day at work (so many authors I follow talk about structuring their day like a day at the office). I talk to myself “Ok, get out of bed NOW, or you’ll be late”. “Sit your ass down and DO IT”. I psyche myself to get words written EVEN IF THEY SUCK. Seriously. Sometimes it’s the physicality of putting fingers to keyboard that can cause creativity. I have walked away from days and stories I have scrapped…and I’m ok with it. If I’ve made my word count for the day, I’m happy – it means I have something to build on, whether a phrase, character or idea.

        I know it won’t work for everyone, maybe not many. I can’t say it’s a perfect system, because I still have many days of fail (whether I don’t hit the word count, or I sleep in…I have insomnia which can slow me down). But it’s a start, and it’s way better than the decade I spent thinking of myself as a failure because I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do (I knew deep down I wanted to be a writer and could be good at it, coz I’d had an ok start at it). Eventually I read about some writers who started later in life (Agatha Christie and Juliet Marillier) and I thought “FUCK IT. JUST DO IT. What have I got to lose? The average to crap career I have now? Pffffft”

  17. PS: Reading how much difficulty other people have with the education system makes me think of that video of a lecture made into an animation that critiques western education and it’s surrounding culture (and how it’s informed by capitalism). I can’t remember where it’s from now, I’ll try to find it, but it has a lot of meaning to what we’re saying here, and how it’s let a lot of good people down.

  18. Found it!

    “Changing Education Paradigms”

    • That video explains exactly why I send my son to a Montesorri school, not because I’m a hippie wanker, but because I don’t want him to be treated like a cog in the education machine.

  19. Welcome to the new work.
    The work of life that holds new hope, and has taken hundreds of thousands of years to arrive.
    Work was not merely a word in the human condition for most of history. Life was an endless struggle to survive. Merely finding enough to eat was a battle, and the random tragedy of illness and death was impossible to avoid.
    Work was seen as a path to redemption, and a way to find honour. Science and technology developed to lighten the load of lifes troubles.
    We take technology for granted these days. Learning is the key to finding how we can use our talents to best effect.
    Good luck with your work.

  20. When I was in high school, I went to this English tutoring class to get help with an essay on Hamlet. I only spent a few days there, because the fees turned out to be too high to handle, but the woman who ran it was the only one who ever pulled me up on the fact that I could write well but none of my essays ever really said anything. I was a master blatherer, and it fooled a lot of my teachers because I read well above my age level and could use lots of big words. But it didn’t fool her. She taught me how to approach an argument properly, and in the end I was prouder of that essay than I have been of almost anything since. I think I owe her my entire undergradate GPA.

    The thing is, I kind of feel like I’ve been doing the same thing re: work as a postgrad, lots of handwaving and “oh I’m so busy’s” but so far as actual output is concerned…? Yeah, not so much. It’s like I think that if I just sit in front of my computer and *will* it, the work will do itself. I definitely have a “work problem.”

    However. Not only am I thoroughly relieved to hear that I’m not alone, but that article was exactly what I needed right now. I have two postgrad research projects due at the end of next month which I’ve (theoretically) been working on all year, and the final 10k is killing me. I’m so busy beating myself up for what I haven’t done that it’s hard to focus on what I need to do, you know? Reading that article really inspired me, not only to get stuck in but also to change my approach to my work in general. Thank you so much for posting, and good luck with your Ph.D.!

    • Hi Sarah Robot, welcome to the News with Nipples. Some days I think I should print that article out in 7345pt font and wallpaper my room with it.

      Do you still remember the advice that woman gave you about approaching the argument? I’d love to hear it. I also rely on my writing way too much.

  21. Oh wow, I’m another one. Coasted through school, dropped the bundle big time at uni, started 3 different courses and didn’t finish any. In the end I kind of side-stepped the whole thing by deciding what I wanted was to be a parent and that the whole career issue wasn’t important to me. Which is a choice I was able to make because I happen to be lucky enough to be married to someone who earns rather well and who is ok with being the primary financial provider for our family. Though I do have guilt about my choices having constrained his choices in that respect.

    People often exclaim to me how busy I must be with 3 kids and all the activities that they, and I, do, but I don’t feel busy most of the time, I feel like I waste large chunks of time and then have to scramble to catch up with things and there are so many things I want to do but just never get around to starting.

    Oddly enough the thing that has helped most in getting me off my bum and getting things done has been the internet, I feel like I’ve achieved more in the last 5 years since I got active and involved online than I ever did in the 35 years before then.

    • Mimbles, I always feel like I waste enormous chunks of time. I guess it’s about the value you give to the things you spend your time on. Sitting on the couch all day reading for pleasure isn’t a waste of time. Playing spider solitaire on the computer for hours on end probably is.

      • Hmmm – somehow my mother managed to become a Latin teacher, renovate a house fairly single-handedly, become extremely well-respected in her field of research (Social capital), raise 8 children, get a couple of degrees, embroider and carve and sew and paint, cook well AND SPEND HOURS PLAYING FREAKIN’ SPIDER SOLITAIRE!!!!

        She is a ridiculously tough act to follow.

        • Oh, well in that case, I should un-delete it from my computer…

          That is a hard act to follow.

          I wish I’d been able to study more Latin. I did it in years 7 and 8, but when I changed schools, it wasn’t offered anymore. Say what you want about it being a dead language – I found it really interesting.

  22. I did it in first year at uni, (and then went on to ‘study’ Modern and middle Welsh, and modern Irish) which may go some to explain why I am an unemployed housewife.

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  25. Hey all,
    I wanted to comment and say it’s nice to read about people having felt the same etc. I’ve just started a PhD and even though am only a week into it, I feel like I’ve already been through elements of what people are talking about on here! I’ve been away from academia for a few years so at the moment I’m having to re-adjust my thinking to remembering what is expected of you in the academic world, how you need to write, all of that stuff. I’m going to try out that scrivener stuff and probably check into this blog every now and then for a bit of comfort 🙂 thanks for raising all of this stuff in a forum where you can offer your 2 cents!

    • Hi Tiff Cone, welcome to the News with Nipples. What’s your PhD on? I haven’t downloaded Scrivener yet, but I am using Mendeley for referencing and it’s very easy to use. Zotero is another one that is highly recommended by others.

      As for advice in the early days, make sure your supervisor works out a timeline of completion and a table of contents with you. Otherwise you just end up wandering around in the wilderness of your brain for too long.

      Oh, and The Thesis Whisperer is a great blog.

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