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Ants, Grasshoppers, and Work

09 Feb

This post was inspired by the following article… We all need to give ourselves the grace to discover the way we work best and then accept it.

Accepting the Way You Work – Do Your Job Better – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I, too, have become more “ant-like” (methodical, steady) in my work habits but have found that anxiety pushes me into my undergraduate “grasshopper” mode. This mode  used to work well for me – pulling all-nighters, writing at the last moment, often because I had to.  Between working in the math department and juggling two very opposite majors, in addition to honors courses, it seemed that I could never get ahead of the game but always strove to keep pace. I’ll be honest – it was stressful, but I loved the adrenaline rush, the feeling of achievement when I completed challenging assignments, and the satisfaction of checking each item off my to do list. As a graduate student, there are fewer to-do’s, but they take much longer.  I’ve learned to consume a book in roughly five to six hours.  It’s not exactly an enjoyable process – more akin to stuffing oneself at a buffet in fifteen minutes than the relaxed gourmet meal I would prefer.  However, I’ve learned that both provide the “nutrients” I need.  When I was completing coursework, I still had the adrenaline rush that came with completing assignments for class, but I learned to start papers early and write several drafts.  I didn’t have a master’s degree when I began my PhD program, and I knew that I had much to learn and that my writing, though excellent in undergrad, had a long way to go to meet the standards of academia.

With so much to learn and feeling somewhat behind my colleagues, I approached my work with the persistence and focus of an ant and the energy of a grasshopper. There was so much to do! In my first semester, I actually attempted to read word-for-word every book for my courses and approach my TAship with the same consideration and care I brought to high school instruction. By the end of the semester, I was thrilled with my new path in life but very tired.  I asked colleagues how they got through their to-do lists without going crazy and discovered the art of skimming and “gutting” a book.  It wasn’t how I expected to go through grad school, but it was a necessary skill to acquire.  So on I marched, double-time, through my courses, research, and academic conferences.

And then I became ill.  Surprisingly, the direct cause was not the frantic pace of keeping up with academic pursuits and trying to maintain some sort of social life.  However, it did impact that pace.  For over a year, I needed much more sleep than the normal 5-6 hours I allowed myself before I got sick.  I had to spend time researching foods I could eat that would contribute to my recovery rather than reading for classes and comprehensive exams.  Both the illness and the road to recovery were incredibly stressful.  I became just an ant without the bright optimism and drive I had before.

After finishing my courses last spring and the graduate institute at the Newberry Library this summer, I also discovered that anxiety has pushed me back into grasshopper mode.  I was consumed by fears that the professor who had so relentlessly beaten my confidence into nothingness was right – that I didn’t belong in graduate school, that I was incapable of success in my field. So I procrastinated.  What if the results of my efforts proved this person correct? And yet, as much as I wanted to cave in and give up, I had made promises to colleagues in setting up panels for conferences that I could not and would not break.  Riding the wave of faith that my friends, family, and colleagues had in me, I tackled my work once again, at first with trepidation and then with ever increasing confidence.  I could do this!  And with the return of my confidence and physical health, I gave up the anxiety-induced procrastination and turned my inner grasshopper loose with the steadiness and determination of graduate student ant I had become.

I just completed my last written comprehensive exam and have only my oral exams left at the end of the month and my dissertation proposal defense in March.  Then it will be off to Europe!  By April, I should have much more interesting things to write about. 🙂 Until then, the ant must keep marching double time…

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