In the modern research world, a lot of attention is given to results and accomplishments. One’s worth is determined by how many publications and awards they could obtain and in how short a time. It is seen as a great motivation and drive to succeed in projects and push science further, faster and with more efficiency. ‘Successful individuals’ or ‘high achievers’ are the ones who very early on master the art of acquiring results, and later progress onto populating places such as our dear RSES. Struggling to keep up with expectations (them being personal or external) despite what samples/experiments/ instruments/life gives you generates stress and frustration. This sometimes a big hurdle towards progress, it can make us feel like giving up.
A lot of us seek relief from this stress by taking part in other activities such as sports. Letting go of the PhD-related problems to free up the mind and grow as a more balanced individual. But before we know it, we reproduce in sports the line of thinking we have been conditioned for since school: we develop high expectations and seek successes and results to match. The consequence is that a secondary activity might relieve some of the work-related stress but generates a whole new layer of self-judgement and frustration. Bad news: in that way, sports can be highly addictive, as are high achieving habits. Trapped in the world of the overwhelmed 12 year old who wants to get good grades.
The good news is, if one is ready to let go just a little, sports is a great playground for exploring the world of the mind, the maze of our motivations, the ranges of past and present expectations, rivers and oceans of limitations and frustration, but also for seeking the treasure chest of inner peace. (Spoiler: there is no treasure chest.)
My drug of choice in that area is cross-country navigation in the form of rogaining or orienteering. I was introduced to the sport by a fellow PhD student who you will probably recognise, in a bitter period of injury and frustration in my previous rock-climbing career. By starting something new, you are granted a precious gift: the beginner’s mind. Every step is progress, every improvement a revelation. No expectations, just curiosity and learning. Orienteering and rogaining are so rich in exciting things: exploring new bush areas, running into wildlife (literally), learning the tricks of day- or night-time navigation, discovering how fast you can dance your way through scrub, how fast you fly on a track, how far you can walk in 24h or how easy it is to trip on a rock. But after a few events, the expectations sneak in. Orienteering is a competitive activity like tennis or soccer, unlike yoga or painting. Because you need a map and controls out in the bush, you go to events that result in a list where there is the one who comes first, and the one who comes last. Whenever you run fast, you make navigational mistakes; whenever your navigation is spot-on, you feel like you could have been faster or taken bolder route-choices. Whenever you come first in the women’s, you think of who did better overall.
This is when the magic of the beginner’s mind wears off, and when you need to grow up and start observing the mind. This is when it gets harder and more enriching at the same time. Reflect on what it is that drives you to do that sport, and what it brings you in return. Find the strength to commit and come back from that injury or set back (reflecting is an energy-consuming process that rarely comes without a trigger). Separate the intent that drives you to progress from expectations that only generate angst and frustration. Learn to find enjoyment in the process and let go of the result. Do your best at resuscitating the beginner’s mind and be open and curious. Realise that if it was easier you wouldn’t learn as much from it.
A year after a knee injury and 6 months after breaking my big toe (an unfortunate living-room accident), I am now back to a practice of orienteering and rogaining that I am satisfied with. This came from analysing and improving my running posture but mainly from learning not to expect too much. Committing to long-term improvement but being observant and making the most of what every moment brings. Nevertheless, this morning I refreshed the orienteering website results page five times to see ‘how I did’ on the weekend: still a long way to go…
My PhD journey has so far led me into wild, boring, amazing, sometimes surprising landscapes including the dreaded valley of shit and dangerously close to the pit of despair. My situation feels very different from three years ago though. I have learnt that by being perseverant, patient but curious, research unfolds. Whenever it does not work the way we want, we are presented with a good opportunity to observe, change and try again!
Be persistent with your intent, but don’t get distracted by focusing on the result.