Graduate school is hard. You have to read insane amounts of very confusing articles, write lengthy papers about incredibly specific phenomenon, and contribute intelligently in class discussions that last for hours at a time. That’s not what I mean about it being hard, though. The hard part is not letting everything you have to do destroy what I’ve come to call your “inherent interestingness.”
I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon among my classmates (both older ones and my own cohort). Everybody who entered this program is really, really interesting or unique in some way. People have varied interests and experiences that really color who they are as individuals. However, over the last couple of months I think a lot of my classmates are having their inherent interestingness hammered out of them. They’re being grad-schoolized.
Everybody is turning into a study-robot that is constantly thinking about the next assignment, the next reading, or the next test. We all gather in the library to slave over our notes and have conversations about the same topics every single day. Obviously, an important part of a graduate program is inundating you in the discipline that you’ve chosen. Especially if you’re on track for a PhD — you need to become an absolute expert in what you’re doing. I’m totally behind that goal of a graduate school program.
However, I’m not behind that goal if it means losing what it is that makes us interesting people.
Last night I finished reading a book about Japanese technology in World War II. It has absolutely nothing to do with positive psychology. I read it because I’m still a history nerd at heart and it sounded interesting to me. It took me a lot longer than it would have under non-grad school conditions, but it got done. Right now I’m writing this blog post and not reading about ANOVA for my statistics class. Tomorrow, I’m going to be going to a meeting about organizing next year’s TEDx event on campus. None of this stuff will directly help me get my degree but I submit that it’s all just as important as classwork.
I don’t mean to denigrate my classmates and put myself on a pedestal with this description. I’m certainly not perfect. I told myself that I would do almost no school work on weekends and yet I spent at least three hours on Sunday reading for a class. My classmates are a fairly amazing group of people that accomplish things in the classroom that make me shake my head in amazement. I just don’t want any of them, including myself, to lose the inherent interestingness that got us here in the first place.
DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR INTERESTINGNESS IS?
What about your inherent interestingness? What do you like to do that doesn’t have any ramifications for your job, school, or other “grown up” responsibilities? Everybody has certain activities and quirks that are constantly being ground away under the pressure of stress and responsibility. It can be easy to let these things slip away as more important things enter your life. However, the inherent interestingness within us all is what provides for the opportunities that we’re all looking for. Stressful jobs and life situations are a leveling factor that turn everybody into automatons of themselves. Automatons can be replaced by any other similarly trained (manufactured?) automatons. The creativity that sets you apart from the robots making microchips is borne of those characteristics that are constantly under fire. You must protect and cherish your inherent interestingness in order to grow and flourish regardless of life situation.
HOW TO CULTIVATE YOUR INTERESTINGNESS
Theory and words are cheap. I hope you’ve been reading this article with a critical eye and thinking to yourself, “So what if inherent interestingness is important? I have responsibilities. I have a family. I can’t sit around and just read books that seem interesting all day. I can’t just follow my muse whenever it strikes.” You are correct but I think I have a couple ideas that can be directly applied to the defense of your inherent interestingness today.
Make time: There is a profound psychological difference between these two statements; “I need to find some time to do something,” and, “I need to make some time to do something.” When you make time you’re in control of the situation. When you try to find time, you’re at the whims of the universe. Very simply, you need some free time (some, not a lot) in order to protect your inherent interestingness. It’s up to you to figure out where it comes from. Can you approach your work in a more intelligent and efficient way so you have 15 minutes at the end of the day to devote to yourself? Can you get up 15 minutes earlier? Maybe you can cut a television program out of your routine? Almost nobody is operating at such peak efficiency and capacity that they can’t find 15 minutes anywhere in their day.
Set boundaries: If I wanted to I could do graduate school work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is always a paper to write. If I finish all the papers there’s always more to read. If I finish all the reading for class there’s always my own research to be conducting. It’d be never-ending if I were to let it. Very simply, I don’t allow that to happen. To the best of my ability I set boundaries about when I’ll do work and how much I’ll do. Where are your boundaries? Do you work on the weekends? Do you take work on vacation? Where is it okay for you to be separated from your work? If you’re currently boundary-less, try setting some very minor ones and then move forward from there. A simple boundary, like no mindless internet after 9 PM, is a great way to get started.
Cultivate your interests: Writer Julia Cameron advocates something she calls the Artist Date. Essentially it’s just time you take out of every week to take your inner artist out to do something interesting. I think you should do the equivalent to cultivate your own interestingness at least weekly. At least 3-4 times a week I spend 15 minutes reading something completely unrelated to school. It lets me get through books that I find enjoyable and interesting without cutting too much into my “productive” time. Maybe you can go check out a museum you think is awesome or watch a documentary that piques your interest sometime in the next week. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, expensive, or time consuming. 15 minutes can be enough to get your mind moving in a way that work, school, or stress usually prevent from happening.
If we stand by idly the stresses of our lives will grind us down into the lowest common denominator. We will all be the same, bemoaning what we’ve become, with nothing to differentiate ourselves from each other. We must plant our feet, look our circumstances in the face, and proclaim, “I will NOT let you turn me into a robot. I will NOT become boring. I AM an interesting person.” Your inherent interestingness is one of the only things that differentiates you from anyone else.
You must guard it. You must cultivate it.
Nobody else will do it for you.