psychology

Red Ink & Green Envy: Rethinking Failure and Success

I don’t know if it’s because this attitude is becoming more prevalent, or because as an educator and graduate student, I’ve started leaning in and listening more carefully to what people say, but I often hear complaints about how our society has moved away from valuing success to tolerating mediocrity and failure. Some complain about how elementary schools have taken away the element of competition, offering “participation medals” to all who are involved in activities like Sports Day. Some bemoan the attitudes of “poor losers,” pointing out that instead of the gracious acceptance of defeat, people are simply lashing out at those who win, succeed, or do better than them. Some find issue with parents who only want their children to be “good enough,” rather than wanting their children to excel, to go above and beyond in any given pursuit. Some suggest that we’ve gotten too lenient with grading practices, and that the corporatization of education (combined with the effects of policies like “No Child Left Behind”) mean that students believe they’re entitled to a better grade simply because they’ve paid for their studies, and that educators are afraid to (or not allowed to) fail a student because it’s believed that being held back in a particular subject or grade will damage their self-esteem.

Naturally, I agree in part with some of these criticisms. As a teaching assistant in a post-secondary system, where students pay tuition, I have observed students who do feel entitled to the grade they “paid for.” As a child who grew up playing sports in school, albeit certainly not as a talented athlete, I amassed a number of ribbons for anything from 7th to 3rd place, never 1st or 2nd, and don’t believe that these should be dispensed with completely in favour of “participation.” As someone who often struggles with issues of procrastination and a lack of motivation, I most certainly understand wanting to encourage our children to learn to harness their capabilities, to develop good work habits, and to experiment in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones. As someone who has observed how jealousy and envy can manifest themselves in surprising and upsetting ways, I agree that there needs to be a better way of dealing with the accomplishments and lives of others.

winner-loser1However, I patently disagree with statements that condemn “bad losers” and “people who just don’t succeed/try hard enough/want it enough/spend enough time on something/care enough/don’t value success/drop out/quit” to one half of some absurd binary about human potential and accomplishment: winners vs. losers. I wholeheartedly oppose the mindset that posits success as a simple result of individual work, of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and bloody well getting on with it. Because as I’ve observed, in my own life and in the lives of others, both failure and success are never so simple as we would like them to be.

  • What happens when you grow up with a parent who emotionally, verbally, or physically abuses you when you don’t achieve good grades? What happens when you’re shamed in a classroom by a teacher? What happens when your classmates call you stupid, slow, or clumsy? How might that develop into an absolute fear of failure later on in life? How might individuals who have suffered that kind of shaming and abuse go on to replicate those attitudes in their interactions with others?
  • What happens when a child simply does not have the physical or intellectual capability to achieve the same goals as their parents, siblings, or peers? What happens if they try their very hardest in math class, but struggle with things like spatial reasoning? What if there’s not adequate support for students with learning disabilities?
  • What happens when your definition of success simply differs from others’? What if you value the pursuit of art over the pursuit of financial security? What if success is simply getting through the day when you’re struggling with severe depression or anxiety?
  • What happens when you have to choose between some nebulous pursuit of success and the very real need for daily survival? What if you can’t afford to pursue higher education? What if you have to drop out of school to take care of your family?
  • What happens when you’re willing to pursue success at any cost? When you’re willing to look past ethics as a means to an end?
  • What happens when our culture associates male identity with the accrual of capital and romantic partnership? What happens to you, as a man, when you lose your job, your house, and your partner? What if you have to declare bankruptcy?
  • What happens when the expectations placed on you because of past successes become impossible to deal with? What if you’re a child prodigy who buckles under or refuses to deal with the pressure? What if you don’t want to have to keep on living up to the expectations of others?
  • What happens when the various systems that endorse racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, or classism make it structurally impossible (if not at least very, very difficult) to enter into, let alone succeed in various environments? What if you have to choose between your safety and sanity or your success?

Look, I understand how difficult it is, I really do.

I know how hard it is to talk about the expectations we put on ourselves, and onto our children. I know how badly we want the best for our children, how much we want them to see their potential, to know their limits and to realize their strengths. I know how much fear there can be when we think about our children having to struggle financially, socially, romantically, intellectually, emotionally, or physically.

I get how difficult it is to understand that just because something is easy or simple for us, that it may not be simple or easy for others, that when we have a talent, a skill, or an ease with something, that it’s often taken for granted.

I feel the agony of reconciling our own limitations and impasses with various structures and institutions. I know how helpless that can make us feel, and for that reason, I empathize with those who turn to narratives of individual agency and effort as the means to success. To deal of structural oppression and constraint is agonizing at its worst, and uncomfortable at best, when it forces us to talk about things like privilege.

I see how notions of failure and success play into the pursuit of meaning in our lives, how we associate our accomplishments with blessings and proof of how special we are, how we might live on in the memories of others, how fame and recognition are profoundly linked to self-worth and identity. I see how the concept of failure can make people feel abandoned by their god, by their community, by their partners, by their families, and how it can make people feel invisible, small, and meaningless.

Despite the complexity of failure and success as concepts and as lived experiences, I do believe that there are ways of mitigating the impact that they have on our lives.

We can stop using the word “failure,” or, at the very least, make an effort to find alternative words to describe our experiences. We can remember, as trite as it may sound, that having taken the risk to apply for that scholarship or that job, to go on that date, or to enter that sporting event takes a hell of a lot of courage and vulnerability. We can understand that, as opposed to the wisdom of internet memes and bullshit gurus like Tony Robbins, that failure and success are not polar opposites, but part of the same process of discovery and knowledge formation. We can talk, instead, about setbacks. Moments of frustration. Queries, questions, puzzles, mysteries.

Spectator Code of Conduct from Port Moody. Image from CTV News.

Spectator Code of Conduct from Port Moody. Image from CTV News.

We can start to enjoy things for enjoyment alone, rather than as part of a culture of competition. We can pursue education for the love of learning, sports and dance for the love of movement, relationships for the purpose of connection, jobs for the purpose of fulfillment and engagement with others, fitness for the purpose of health. We can find pleasure in process, not in an end result.

We can learn techniques and strategies to mitigate the experience of criticism or critique. For instance, as a teacher, I rarely if ever mark in red pen. Some might tell me that not marking in red pen plays into the culture of “well, we can’t hurt their precious feelings,” but if you honestly believe that red does not have practical, oft-reinforced associations with fear or hesitancy, you might check your own heart rate when the light suddenly turns from amber to red. I mark in purple – it’s just as easy for me to do. I also use a marking style that is conversational, and that expresses my experience as a reader. I make notes about what the “essay” does, not about what the “student” does. I try to remember, as Dr. Janet Giltrow suggests, that for many of my students, this work is new for them, and that learning is a process.

We can remember that our own attitudes about failure and success necessarily impact those around us. When we say that we’re failures, that we’re pieces of shit because we left a PhD program or because we had a relationship that broke up, that has an effect on our loved ones, especially when we say “well, no, YOU’RE not a failure for leaving your program or not being married yet, it’s just totally DIFFERENT for me.”

We can take ownership of our decisions without labeling them as good or bad. We can decide that a school or a job wasn’t the right fit for us, and that it was healthy for us to leave, even if a colleague or a friend decides to stay. We can acknowledge that we all have different limits, abilities, tolerances, desires, and goals, and that we make different choices as a result.

We can start talking about privilege. We can talk about all the things we don’t want to talk about, like how the majority of the people who talk about success and failure have the financial privilege and the cultural capital to be able to do so, and how they rarely if ever talk about social injustice, inequity, oppression, and its relationship to things like neoliberalism and capitalism.

This is REALLY hard work. It’s as hard to examine the language and attitudes about failure and success from as it is to examine any other set of thoughts and beliefs. It’s difficult to balance our needs and desires to learn from our setbacks, and to take credit for things that we’ve done well. It’s painful to embrace our limitations and to fight back against oppression. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still working through all of this myself. What I do know is this: instead condemning those who criticize failure, instead of praising those who value success above all, let’s listen to the stories that shaped those attitudes and beliefs. There may be a lot more behind the red ink and the green envy than we think, and it’s only by going into those uncomfortable spaces that we even approach the possibility of equity and opportunity, support and understanding.

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On Being Alone: Rethinking The Single Life

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a man or a woman reaches a certain age, an age that one also generally associates with sexual attractiveness, fertility, the beginning of economic security and the decline of teenage angst, that he or she will seek a partner, indeed, fervently desire a partner, and do everything within his or her power to meet, marry, and mate. In my nod to Jane Austen, here, I am suggesting, as cheekily as I am earnestly, that the societal standards that are steadfastly ingrained in our psyches regarding relationships are still rather predictable, conservative, and normative. And, if I may be so bold to admit—being myself a young woman of a certain marriageable and fertile age—rather draining, dreary, and downright depressing.

As you, dear reader, can deduce, I am single. Solitary. Unbetrothed, unwed. As long as I have been “eligible” to date, I have generally been single. I have had relationships, sort-of-boyfriends even, although given a variety of factors, including but not limited to my own anxieties, my enjoyment of solitude, mismatches based on the naïveté of youth or differences in styles of communication and emotional needs or bad timing, rejection, or the sheer difficulty of sustaining a relationship over a long distance, I have been alone.

I have learned, over the years, that my description of my rather persistent singleness is not neutral. The reception and interpretation of my lack of a romantic partner has called up some of the most interesting, misguided, or presumptive statements and unsolicited analyses of my psyche and my behaviour. It has suggested to many that I may be too nervous to date, too preoccupied with my career, too picky about prospective partners, too conservative, too liable to pick “bad” matches, too this, too that. Funny how one’s personal life so quickly becomes open season fo armchair psychologists! And while these commentaries and assumptions can be only rather irritating at times, the banter of a nosy relative or well-meaning friend, I have recently noticed how awfully sinister, how awfully narrow-minded and rife with victim-blaming they can be.

  • How often they suggest that past relationships are failures, rather than experiences that can offer both parties the gift of insight, as if because something was time-limited or brief or is no more, that it was not fulfilling or wonderful or an occasion to learn.
  • How they imply that women and men who are single must be flawed, broken, undesirable, inflexible, psychologically damaged, unskilled at sex or love or communication, rather than, perhaps, individuals who may simply prefer solitude, prefer a different type of relationship arrangement, who may have done the emotional work that makes them less likely to enter hastily into (or stay in) abusive or unfulfilling relationships, who may have other types of partnerships and connections, or who may simply not have the desire to be in a romantic partnership (now or ever).
  • How they argue that there is one type of love and relation that is aspirational, against which all others pale. As if the love of our families, our friends, our colleagues, our communities, our lovers…were not enough. Eros trumps all, trumps philia, trumps storge, trumps agape.
  • How they infer that until we meet our (presumably monogamous) partner, and fall into some sort of nebulously and poorly defined thing called “love,” we singletons are mere shells of human beings, eternally waiting for our “other halves,” our “soul-mates,” or, at the very least, a person to co-habitate with, and at some point, possibly sign a legal contract that has nothing in actuality to do with love, despite social norms that try to convince us otherwise. As if we are less than whole people, always lacking.
  • How they advise that a single person must simply “love themselves enough” before they find a partner, as if self-love and worthiness were not things that people must and should do for themselves and for the many other relationships they have with their families, friends, and co-workers. As if self-love were not, above all, for one’s self. As if the very people who believe that they are worthy just as they are, who have developed communication skills, who can be vulnerable and sit with others’ vulnerability, are those who do love themselves enough. As if breaking up with someone cannot be an act of self-love, or, indeed an act of love towards others to avoid mutual disappointment or resentment.
  • How they discount the other accomplishments in our lives by assuming our happinesses or our successes are not enough if we do not also “find someone nice to settle down with.” As if the only occasions worthy of public and community celebrations are marriages (and having children).
  • How they presume that being in a relationship or being married automatically makes someone a more skilled communicator, empathic person, sexually open partner, considerate human being, or expert in love than any single person could ever hope to be.

I’m sure that I may be perceived as being too harsh here, or as making some rather broad and hyperbolic statements, or that I am assuming that these are simply things that the coupled say to the uncoupled. But these are also things that we single folks tell ourselves. They’re things that I’ve told myself, when relationships haven’t gone right, when I feel lonely, when I feel envious of those who have a partner, and when I get frustrated with the complexities and unpredictability of love and dating. And believe me, admitting to that is not easy. It is, however, useful and necessary.

The normalization of monogamy aside—and the aspersions it casts on the singletons—is that there is, of course, something more profoundly existential at play here, and that is that solitude and loneliness can call up some of our deepest fears and sorrows.

The fear of being rejected for our flaws.

The fear of not being able to handle the flaws of others.

The fear of not having our lovers’ snores or our bustling households to distract us from other sources of shame or feelings of unworthiness in our lives.

And that big fear: the aching, gnawing agony of our mortality. Death as the ultimate solitary event. Spinning silently through the vastness of space on this tilting rock, we cling to each other. The figure of a single person can remind us, painfully, of our need and desire to cling, to love, to make meaning in conjunction, even though we wax poetically about self-sufficiency, independence, and aloneness. If we are insecure or overdependent in our partnerships, the single person can terrify us, reminding us that we have not yet learned to tolerate being alone, to sit with the discomfort of being all by ourselves.

Singleness can also remind us also of how we exclude. How we don’t call up that friend, or that family member, or invite them over for dinner. How we can, so easily, take the companionship and presence of our partner for granted.

Singleness confronts us with how precarious and unpredictable relationality can be. That there’s not always “someone for everyone.” That even if you are emotionally healthy, even if you have a wonderful career, and a good sense of self, that you may end up without a romantic partner, or that the romantic partnership you envisioned in your late teens or early twenties—the fairytale romance—may not be exactly what you get. That your partner may suddenly become ill, or be unfaithful, or die long before you do: that you may once again be alone, and not through your own choosing.

Singleness reinforces the consequences of our choices and situations in life. That with togetherness, as with aloneness, comes compromise, different lacks of fulfillment, different ways of being, different sources of joy. And as they say, the grass is always greener on the other side.

As I enter my mid-twenties, I’ve decided to embrace paradox while I confront my own thoughts about singleness and about partnerships. While I have been told that I can be, at times, rather unromantic in my realism and cynicism about love, I have also been told that I am unrelentingly optimistic and hopeful. I can be wonderfully happy being single, and enjoy the freedoms that it affords me, but can also long for and dream of finding a partner who is my equal, my companion, and my fellow pilgrim on this strange and foreboding but curious and extraordinary road of life.

But most importantly—and I do hope this is the lesson that I can impart—I know, deep in my heart, that it is a truth universally acknowledged that we are all worthy of love, trust, companionship, acceptance, and kindness…whomever we receive it from.

“Don’t Let the Haters Get You Down”: My Past Life in the Pro-Anorexia Community

As regular readers of my blog will know, I often write about my history of eating disorders. I do so because I know that eating disorders are incredibly common, albeit very misunderstood, and I believe that it’s important to offer an insider’s viewpoint on their complex nature. I’m fortunate, in that it’s not something that I find particularly difficult to write about anymore. After years of therapy, I have come to a place where I have a relatively amicable relationship with my body and with food. This June marks the 5-year anniversary of my lowest point suffering from anorexia nervosa, and I’m glad to be able to do so, free from the tyrannies of the scale, counting calories, or of endless self-scrutiny in the mirror. I’m lucky to have a loving family and community of friends who understand that I still have lingering vulnerabilities when it comes to food and body image, and if I ever find myself having intrusive thoughts, I can speak to them openly about it.

One of the curious things that I’ve noticed, as I’ve emerged from the depths of my eating disorder, is that so many individuals and communities, who I once perceived as having normal attitudes about food—because they weren’t starving themselves outright, or purging after every meal—were entrenched in various degrees of disordered thoughts and behaviours about food. As I was trying to learn to develop a healthy and balanced diet and relationship to exercise, I realized that the diet and weight-loss industries were raking in more money than ever, that websites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and YouTube were full of “thinspiration” and “fitspiration,” and that it seemed that almost every woman I knew was somehow dissatisfied with her body. This isn’t an unusual realization for those who are in recovery. Indeed, it’s one of the things that can make recovery so difficult, and I hear it often from friends and from the clients that I volunteer with. When we live in a society that encourages thinness at any cost, and that rewards obsessionally “clean” eating and marathon sessions in the gym, why would there be any incentive to recover?

As an English scholar, what’s struck me most about the disordered nature of many popular weight-loss communities, gurus, or companies that promote diet or health supplements are the eerie rhetorical similarities to some of the most hard-core pro-anorexia websites. Now, I’m certain that most people would disavow any similarities to pro-anorexia communities, since pro-ana argues that eating disorders aren’t illnesses but lifestyle choices. Most weight-loss communities are really, earnestly devoted to helping people and promoting health. I’m also fairly certain that most of those people haven’t been members of these types of communities either, and so would have little way of knowing that their slogans, their mantras, and some of their ways of creating a community of isolation are perfectly in line with the ways that underground, pro-eating disorder groups work.

But I DO know. From 2004-2007, I was a heavy user of pro-anorexia websites. I created collages of “thinspiration,” searched for ways to suppress my appetite and hide my eating disorder, and was a regular member on a number of forums. I logged on every single day, described how much or how little I had eaten, talked about my goal weights, and exchanged tips on how to hide my disordered behaviours from my family. To be truthful, it was only after I decided to leave the pro-ana communities that my eating disorder really spiraled out of control, behaviour-wise. However, the cult-like attitudes that the pro-ana movement had instilled in me made it that much more difficult to shake off the increasing power that my eating disorder had over me.

I want to explain some of those attitudes and techniques, and use them to demonstrate why I have serious concerns about how some weight-loss communities/companies/gurus work. I am not, of course, suggesting that these types of people are out to cause poor health in others, or that they are interested in merely profiteering off of the vulnerabilities of others; however, I want to show that there is a very fine line between solidarity in the achievement of health and the type of manipulation and isolation that creates unhealthy communities, and distances people from their families and loved ones and from a truly healthy relationship with food and body image.

 “Thinspiration,” Clean Eating, and Ideal Bodies

One of the hallmarks of the pro-ana movement (one that has become surprisingly mainstream) is that of “thinspiration.” A portmanteau of “thin” and “inspiration,” thinspiration photographs run the gamut from models to ordinary girls, from photoshopped emaciation to real-life beach bodies. You can find it in every flavour you choose: abs, legs, butt, stomach, arms, collarbones, visible spines. Before and after shots. Whatever you want to inspire you to get the body beautiful: it’s out there.

fitspiration-hate

Lately, especially online, I’ve noticed that the trend has moved from thin bodies to athletic bodies (although most are still thin, in any case). “Fitspiration” is well and alive on websites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and Twitter, including the circulation of bullshit slogans that “strong is the new skinny,” and that “thin girls look good in clothes, but fit girls look good naked.” The cult of the body beautiful has simply appropriated the techniques of the underground pro-ana movement, packaged it into a more palatable and supposedly-healthy box, and served it anew, not only to millions of teenage girls, but to teenage boys and grown women and men.

Do not kid yourself: fitspiration is the same shit in a different pile. While I am most certainly all for fitness and exercise in moderation (including a focus on healthy eating and less processed foods over all), slogans and photographs of ripped abs and toned thighs are not necessarily representative of health. It’s important to recognize that a desire to be fit and look good can easily devolve into a denigration for individuals who are not (or do not appear to be) fit, a practice of shaming others for food choices that are not exclusively “clean,” a fear of non-clean foods, and an obsession with reps of weights completed and miles run. What scares me most about this aspect of our current focus on health and wellness is that like the pro-ana community, many people begin to believe they’re not harming themselves, and that what they’re doing can’t possibly be disordered. Believe me: it can when it’s taken too far. I’ve been there too.

Motivational Quotations and Success-Speak

During my time in the pro-ana community, I learned the value of “success-speak.” Inspirational quotations were plentiful, whether featured in forum members’ signatures, photoshopped onto images of thin models, or simply listed in abundance on websites as  a way to motivate us in our quest to be beautiful, perfect, and weightless. While the mantras of “a moment on the lips, forever on the hips” were popular, so too, were ones from Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, and any other speaker, “guru,” or public figure you could imagine. Even the words of spiritual figures and civil rights activists were not off-limits in being appropriated for our cause.

fitspiration_24The proliferation of mantras in excess, especially those which focus on individual success as simply a means of trying hard enough, never giving up, and not wanting to give in to “failure,” were certainly excellent ways of putting a positive spin on a means of self-destruction. This is also the same phenomenon that I have observed at work in Multi-Level Marketing companies, many of which are currently cornering the health/diet/fitness market. The more positivity that can be used, the less the unhealthy aspects of the community is revealed, and the more people want to engage in it so as not to let the community down. Skeptics and naysayers need not apply, and are quickly ousted from the community in order to preserve it.

“Don’t Let The Haters Get You Down”

Skeptics and naysayers in the pro-ana community were generally those on the outside: concerned friends, families, and physicians. They were the people who told us that starvation and purging were dangerous habits, who expressed concern when we fainted or were lightheaded, who reminded us that the price of these behaviours was serious illness, if not death. I can’t tell you how many times I not only shrugged off that concern, but began to perceive any outside criticism as a serious threat to the integrity of my illness. Fellow pro-ana community members reminded me that I can’t let “the haters get me down,” that outsiders didn’t understand me, that everyone else would just be jealous of me when I lost weight, and that efforts to intervene were just ways of them sabotaging my weight-loss out of that place of jealousy.

I hear that a lot from people who are involved in weight-loss communities. And while I do not deny that the threat of sabotage is real in many cases, I don’t think that the people who suggest that people are merely out to “ruin their success” is accurate; in any case, it’s certainly not nuanced. Whenever a member of a community (a family member, a friend, a co-worker) begins to undertake a drastic change, whether it be in changing eating habits, exercise habits, or making the decision to stop drinking, smoking, or using drugs, the routines and identities of the other community members are challenged. When you’re used to eating take-out and watching television with your partner, and they all of a sudden start eating differently and being more active, not only is your relationship altered, but you may start to feel pressure to also change your habits (whether you’re ready or not). Given the scrutiny that our society already places on people who are overweight, obese, less active, or who eat “junk” food, it’s reasonable to fear that the person who is changing may start to harbour the same types of attitudes and beliefs against their loved one. Nobody wants to be left behind, and certainly, nobody wants to start to be shamed or looked down upon by the person they once shared a certain activity, behaviour, or food with.

imagesAt its best, the suggestion that we can’t “let the haters get us down” is a caution against the precarious nature of changing, and the impact it may have (or the residual issues it may bring out) in our communities. At its worst, it is a tactic that isolates individuals and risks severing their ties with anyone who is not involved in a similar pursuit, especially when the potential profit involved (weight loss, money, etc) is perceived as being worth more than love or friendship. Need I remind anyone that the “with us or against us” tactic is exactly the same one that George W. Bush used after 9/11, in order to justify and secure support for the “War On Terror”? This isn’t a benign statement in any community. There is, after all, a big difference between becoming assertive and confident to react less strongly to others’ criticisms and starting to view outsiders as weak or malicious, to treat them with paranoia or suspicion.

As I’ve stated before, I do not want to suggest that all weight-loss communities are unhealthy, that all weight-loss/fitness gurus are disordered (although Jillian Michaels once admitted to pouring salt or candle wax on half her food at restaurants so she wouldn’t get tempted…), or that Multi-Level Marketing health/diet companies are all bogus. It’s a lot more nuanced than that, and that’s why I’ve tried to point out some of the areas where the discourses overlap. It’s important to become informed, and be careful of the initial rose-goggle phase of any sudden jump into a community. It’s okay to disagree with certain tactics and agree with others, so long as your disagreement can be articulated, and you’re not afraid of speaking up about it. No weight-loss program, form of diet and exercise, or community is perfect. Certain things may trigger some and motivate others; other things might convince someone to try something and follow it reasonably and yet turn others into devoted radicals.

Food, health, our bodies: they’re sensitive issues. They can play on our vulnerabilities, bring out our strengths. I constantly remind my clients that we do live a world where food is not a black and white issue, and we all need to know where our comfort levels lie.

I have been out of the pro-anorexia community since December 2006. I found healthier online support. Some of my best friends are from recovery sites and outpatient treatment. I am so incredibly grateful for their love and support.

All I can say, as a piece of final advice, is to just be careful out there; take care of yourselves. Get informed. Learn your triggers and your boundaries. Keep open communication. I certainly wish I had.

PhD Survival Guide: Mount Everest Edition

WARNING: THIS BLOG POST IS EXTREMELY LENGTHY. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. THE AUTHOR MAY USE AN ANALOGY FOR THREE THOUSAND WORDS IN ORDER TO PROVE A POINT.

In my attempt to relieve stress and distract myself from my doctoral work, I often take up month-long self-directed studies on a topic of my choice. With Wikipedia and YouTube at my fingertips, anything is possible, and extensive information, fascinating documentaries, and elucidating interviews are never far from my reach. Last month, I was particularly captivated by astrophysics. The month prior, it was chemistry and elements. This month, it’s extreme mountaineering, from Mount McKinley to Mont Blanc, the Eiger to Everest.

Make no mistake, I am neither an astrophysicist, nor a chemist, nor, most certainly, a mountaineer. I’ve never even been rock climbing, and while I can attest to having hiked some wonderful local mountains such as Garibaldi, mountaineering is not a pursuit that I have any real desire to engage in.

Yet, in re-reading Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air, and having watched several documentaries on various expeditions, I can’t help but think that one mountain in particular—Everest—looms as a meaningful metaphor for the dogged pursuit of ambition, excitement and thrill, even amongst deadly risk and extreme mental and physical suffering.

As I’ve learned more about the art and science of climbing Everest, the strategies and tasks involved in doing so, and the devastating illnesses and deaths that occur on the mountain, I find it hard not to look at the PhD through the lens of climbing the highest peak on earth.

I recognize that climbing an 8,848m mountain and doctoral work are not exactly the same thing. Yet, given that both are immense tasks, risky, and, more importantly, optional and inherently-privileged pursuits in life, I wanted to share my thoughts on how I am learning to tackle the looming peak in my own life.

THE MAP

The following map is an adaptation of a map of the Southeast route to the summit of Everest, a well-worn route that takes climbers through a vast array of dangerous terrain, with five main camps along the way: Base Camp, and Camps 1 through 4. At this time, you will note the “doctoral” landmarks with which I have replaced these camps.

It takes nearly two months to achieve a summit of Everest, and because the effects of high altitude can so quickly put the body into shock, a slow acclimatization process must take place. In a technique pioneered by George Mallory, a British climber who undertook three trips to Everest (eventually dying on his third attempt for the summit), climbers will ascend to each camp to acclimatize, then descend to the camp below to rest. This slow process ensures that climbers’ bodies will adapt to the air oxygen rates, which plummet, at the summit of Everest, to just 30% of the oxygen contained at sea level.

I want to pause here to note, that just as in a summit of Everest, as in a PhD, it takes an awful lot to make it as far as Base Camp. While there is a whole debate over inexperienced climbers paying their way to get to Everest (just as there is some debate over unprepared or under-qualified students ending up in doctoral programs), to have made it so far, to have completed a Bachelors’ and/or a Masters’ degree is no small feat in itself. It is, indeed, the foundation upon which doctoral work is built, and must be recognized as such.

CAMP 1: Coursework

By the time you get to your doctoral coursework, you’re already familiar with the demands of graduate level classes. Naturally, anxiety hits early, as the newness of the doctoral program, and the expectations (perceived or real), can make this stretch extremely precarious. You’re working to really prove yourself, and it is technically demanding to produce papers, presentations, and final papers at a level that is striving to make itself distinct from previous graduate work. Like traversing the Khumbu Icefall up to Camp 1 on Everest, the plentiful opportunities to fall into the surrounding narrow crevasses (the pressures for each small assignment) that make this stage particularly challenging. Don’t fall (into the trap of expending too much energy here). Watch your step!

CAMP 2: Comprehensive Exams
Comprehensive exams are shitty. They feel like the worst, terrible, stupid, bullshit torture that you’ve ever been through in your academic career, and you might start to develop paranoia that faculty members are gleefully laughing amongst each other, knowing that their students are suffering through what they once had to go through in their own training. (They’re not, by the way…I don’t think…)

If you’re in a traditional exam format, you might have to haul your ass up to Camp 2 with a few months of reading behind you and a week of sleepless and frantic writing that verges on complete madness. If you’re in a department like mine, you spend five months reading and writing two take-home papers, which is no less arduous, just that the writing is spread out over a longer period of time, and is a different kind of challenge. (In my case, you feel like you have more time to procrastinate about getting stuff written, and stay up late writing blog posts like this one.)

Because the exams mark the halfway point of the PhD, there is something very psychologically rewarding about making it through them. By the time people reach this stage, most wear their sleepless nights like a badge of honour. I should point out that I don’t agree with a lot of the mythos built up around the comprehensive exams. The week-long writing-frenzy rarely produces good and/or useable work, and the months-long take-home paper (to be written without consultation from the committee members) often gets students into a bind, at their defense, whereby five months of work can quickly be made obselete. A crucial misstep in the comps could have been pointed out, even subtly, during the process, if only small consultations were allowed, and can save the student from having to descend all the way back to Camp 1.

This stage also marks a very dangerous phenomenon: ISOLATION. Given that many Masters’ programs are coursework-based, and that the first year of the PhD is also generally coursework, once you’re into your comprehensives, you might face isolation in a way previously not experienced. You’re alone, reading and writing. A lot.  This is where “doctoral altitude sickness” can really start to develop, and rather quickly at that. Remember to leave your house, call people, and do things. Shower. Eat.

LOOKOUT POINT: Conference Crest

Oh, look, a delightful landmark so quaintly given an alliterative name! Conferences, by the time you’re halfway through a PhD, are expected to constitute a sizeable chunk of your C.V. Presenting your material to others is a difficult skill to master, and given that public speaking tends to put the proverbial fear of God into many people, it’s not to be taken lightly. I tend to be of the mind that one doesn’t need to freak out over them: they’re meant to be discussions, not public roasts. (And if anyone does start in on the roasting, then they’re either bad at giving criticism, or…they’re just assholes.)

CAMP 3: Prospectus

Back to the joyful ascent. If this were Everest, you’d be climbing up to a small ledge at 7,470 m (24,500 ft). The summit still feels quite far away, and to get to Camp 3, you’ve got to conquer the Lhotse Face, the “1,125m (3,700 ft) wall of glacial blue ice.” The prospectus stage of doctoral work sounds about commensurate. In the total vertical ascent, it seemingly only comprises a small portion of the total work (the prospectus ranges, usually, from 5-10 pages), and yet the demands are supremely high: a concise, clear roadmap of your dissertation. Some people breeze through the prospectus, but for others, it can be a formidable challenge, and the gateway to (what seems like) the liberation to finally just do what you’ve come here to do all along: WRITE YOUR DISSERTATION. The prospectus process does require patience. It’s all part of the same type of work, but a different format, one that will serve you well if you have to do similar summaries of your work, such as for book proposals. It is a relatively “small” task, but no less maddening and frustrating.

LOOKOUT POINT: Publications Pass

“Publish or perish,” that’s what they say. Given that one is getting close to the so-called “death zone” in our little metaphorical ascent Everest, I can’t help but cringe a little at how eerie that sounds. Publications, are, according to Ye Olde Academy, what will secure you a job.Well, a finished dissertation, and publications. You are expected to have at least one publication (in a good, reputable journal) by the time you’ve finished your PhD, and working on articles in addition to your other work will take up a lot of your time. Don’t get seduced by it. One, remember that published articles reach a limited audience, that the peer-review model is largely based on outmoded forms of hierarchy and “gatekeeperism,” and that what you want to aim for is that finished dissertation. Get the most mileage from your work: you can use chapters of your dissertation as fodder for your articles, and vice versa. And, please, for the love of your sanity, don’t take a rejection or a revise/resubmit too personally: they’re not anti-you, they’re just profs doing their job, and if one journal is unreasonable in their expectations, the problem might be the journal’s expectations, and not your paper. Send it off to another journal. As you can tell from my sarcasm, I’m quite firmly of the opinion that most publication and peer-review is, for the most part, a holdover from the old guard, and I much prefer the ways in which the internet and peer discussions have made idea-sharing and legitimation of ideas much more accessible and democratic. This is my advice: Don’t perish from publishing.

CAMP 4: Dissertation

This is the final push in the PhD, and while it is not perhaps the most technically demanding element (given that you have already gained all the research skills and paper-writing skills beforehand, and carried projects out in smaller scale), the biggest pitfalls in attempting to write the dissertation are the same as trying to summit on Everest: exhaustion and madness. On Everest, once you’re out of Camp 4, you’re in the death zone, the area above 8000m where the air is too thin to sustain human life. In addition to pulmonary and cerebral edemas at high altitude, hypoxia (the lack of oxygen) can cause delirium and poor decision-making. Coupled with the sheer physical exhaustion from climbing, it’s a wonder that more people don’t just accidentally step off the face of the mountain to their deaths.

Exhaustion and poor-decision making sound an awful lot like some of the stories I’ve heard from dissertation-land. You will find yourself staring at the same project, the same chapter, the same articles you’ve been studying for the past 4 years. Add in a fervent desire to summit and finish, because you’ve made it so far already, and very few people will opt to drop the PhD at this point. I truly have nothing but admiration for those who push through and finish, but I also have deep admiration for those who know their limits. Given the rates of depression and anxiety in graduate school, I don’t have to point out that burnout, stress, and academic pressure can culminate in severe physical and mental illness, and, in the worst cases, suicide. I’m not saying that these can’t occur at any stage in one’s career, but when the desire to finish is so close in one’s grasp, one can unwittingly find oneself in a very precarious position. I’ve seen people say that they just want to “take one more step,” write one more chapter, try one more time…and end up more exhausted and depressed than they ever needed to.

Finally, there is also a common misunderstanding that the dissertation is supposed to be refined enough to be a monograph, and that it will be THE CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT OF YOUR CAREER. It is neither. A dissertation is not a ready-to-publish monograph, and it is also only meant to be the first major project of your academic career (if you are continuing in that path). Everest is significant and amazing for climbers, but you can bet that they don’t stop climbing just because they’ve conquered it. (In fact, there are other mountains, such as K2, that are much more dangerous and technically challenging than Everest, but, obviously, simply not as high.)

The oral defense of the dissertation, too, is a sub-hurdle of the push to the summit that must be recognized for its own unique challenge. After all the work you’ve done, all the writing, it’s a time-limited, short, but ultimately extremely daunting task to undertake, especially when you’re exhausted and just want to be given approval to graduate. On Everest, this would be the infamous “Hillary Step,” a 40-ft rock wall that you have to scale right before approaching the summit. Must be fun to climb that when you’re exhausted and oxygen-deprived. (P.S: Always sleep and eat before your defense, and don’t hyperventilate: oxygen deprivation at sea-level sucks, too.)

All of the dangers and suffering aside, I will admit that the PhD summit is awesome. At the end of your dissertation defense and approval, you get to wear what amounts to wizard robes and an oversized beret with a tassle. You get (yet another) fancy piece of paper with your name on it! You get to be “Dr So-and-So”! There’s a lot of cool stuff about that moment when you finish.

But while you celebrate amidst all the hoopla of graduation, I want to warn you’re not finished yet. And I’m about to tell you why.

THE DESCENT

John Mallory, son of George Mallory (who, as I mentioned earlier, died while trying to summit Everest in 1924), said “to me the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don’t get down again.” Sir Edmund Hillary, who became the first man to summit in 1953, echoed John Mallory by posing the following question:

If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I am rather inclined to think personally that maybe it is quite important, the getting down, and the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.”

This, ultimately, is the true test of doing doctoral work. It’s not simply about finishing your dissertation and graduating. If you cannot descend–if you have deliberately left your health in a state of precarious disrepair, if you have lost your spirit to continue onwards, if you have left your relationships in a state of neglect or destruction–then I do not think you can call your doctoral work a success. Here, then are some alternative ways with which to measure doctoral success:

  • To be successful is to finish with enough energy to continue, whether it is to a post-doc or a job search in academia, or in the challenge and excitement of a career outside the academy.
  • To be successful is to feel as though you wrote something that you are proud of, not something that you felt pressured into writing by others.
  • To be successful is to finish without having neglected or destroyed your personal relationships because you are too consumed in your work.
  • To be successful is to finish with as much physical and mental health as is possible.
  • To be successful is to have to have taken care of others on the journey, and never to have benefited or looked away from others’ suffering. Much of our climbing is done roped-in to others, not alone….whether we acknowledge it or not.

The big question then, is this: do we all have to summit? Do we all have to pursue or complete our PhDs?

The answer, quite simply, is a resounding NO.

Two very close friends both knew their limits, and did not finish their degrees. Some might say that they quit; I say that they saved their own lives. Leaving the summit behind is not easy; many grieve for the lost dream that was so near, and I believe that it is appropriate to do so. And for those who might judge? If they are fellow climbers, I would tell them to realize how close they, too, tread to uncertainty, and that it may be by sheer luck or circumstance that they are still well. If they have not climbed, I would point out that they have not even yet set foot near the mountain, and as such, have no purview to be a jackass to you about your choice.

Only you can make the decision to start or finish this kind of work. And yet, if you dare to climb, here are some guidelines and necessary equipment as you begin or continue your ascent:

You will need the following:

  • A nutritious diet and plenty of exercise, both of which strengthen your brain, as it is your main tool – you wouldn’t climb Everest with a dull ice axe, would you?
  • A workspace conducive to productivity (whatever that may look like for you).
  • A comfortable resting space, preferably not in the same room as your workspace, or, if it is, set up so that you feel prepared to sleep well.
  • A good team of guides (your supervisory committee). Do not settle for any less than those who will work in your best interest, and be there for you at every step of the way. Do whatever you can to find these people. A good committee can absolutely make the entire process easier and safer. Do not, under any circumstances, tolerate guides who lead you off the path, completely ignore you, verbally abuse you, and so on.
  • Other guides. Your graduate program assistant, most especially, is going to be your best friend. Do not piss him/her off, and please thank him/her for all the work he/she does to make your journey easier.
  • Good relationships with fellow climbers (your colleagues). Professional networking is not the only thing to do with your fellow graduate students. Socializing and downtime, as well as sharing the struggles of the path…these are key. The friendships you cultivate here can make things bearable, even when everything else makes you cry endless or drink profusely. My colleagues listen to my struggles, the ones ahead of me in the program generously offer sage advice, and many of them also send me adorable cat videos to cheer me up when I’m sad.
  • Support people. Family, friends. Try, if possible, to carry on as usual with these folks. Remember to talk about things other than your work with them, too! Ask how they’re doing. Savour your time with them.
  • Things to do while you’re resting. Take up a hobby in your spare time. Volunteer. Do sports. Make art, play music. Find things that are life-giving and feel normal, things that comfort you and make you feel good.

I’m going to put this last one separate from the rest, because I believe that it is so, so important, and I don’t want it to get lost, as this is KEY. This is what this entire, lengthy, metaphor-milking blog post has been all about.

You must have the ability and the resources to reach out for help. Learn who you can talk to, both in your department, regarding academic issues, and in your personal life. If you are working with sensitive or triggering material, please remember that it might make you that much more vulnerable to burnout. Check in with people along the way. Learn the signs of stress and burnout in yourself, and ask others to look out for the same. If things get really bad, please call your local crisis hotline or visit counselling services on campus, or a private mental health practitioner, because this is what I want everyone to know and believe:

A PhD is thrilling, astounding and life-changing, but like summiting Everest, it is never truly worth dying for.

May you all be well. To those who have climbed and turned back, to those who still climb upwards, and those who have made it back safely: I salute you, and have been honoured to share this journey with so many of you. To those who support me in my own adventure: thank you. I love you more than you can possibly know.

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Installation – Ove Kvavik, The Descent, 2009

From the artist’s website: There are over 200 bodies on Mt. Everest, most of them died on the way down from the summit. On the engraving on the wall there is a quote from a surviving climber that says: “Those who die don’t die on the way to the summit, but on the descent.”