I used to be kind of a control freak, I think many grad students can attest to a similar personality trait. Sadly this tends to go along with the perfectionism that Julie talked about last week. Control is important, we need to be able to balance a number of lives as grad students, maintain multiple fellowships and jobs, work on our research as well as ace our classes, and make a good impression in the department as well as the broader discipline. Our success comes from the close control over every aspect of our professional and academic lives: mapping out every minute of our week into our Google calendars, tracking assignments through various iPhone apps, using Zotero to organize every bibliographic reference, and keeping up with the professionals through every social media site we can think of. This is good, it keeps us grounded.
So here's the problem: you can't control everything. This may come as a shock to some, I honestly thought in my first year of grad school that I could control every aspect of my life. I extended the necessity to control my academic world to my personal world. This personal control led to anxiety over family and friend relationships for not conforming exactly to the plans I had made up in my head, and massive fears about my department's view of myself. I wasted precious energy and time worrying about things that I had no control over. I would lose sleep over things that were external to me. It got so bad that it led to physical damage when I starting unconsciously clenching my teeth at night, I now have a wonderful click sound in my jaw (TMJ for those who want the medical term).
That's when my little brother suggested stoicism. Joel Mendez wrote "Contrary to common perception, being stoic doesn’t mean being emotionless. The real quality of Stoicism is far more masculine than not caring about anything – it’s about knowing when to care, when to be upset, and how to accept the inescapable with your head held higher than you thought possible."
According to Mendez, if nature gives you a metaphorical slap in the face you can either get all worked up about wondering why this occurred to you or you can accept what occurred and realize there's no use in crying over it, because you can’t control nature. There's no point in freaking out because a freak snowstorm prevented you from getting to a presentation, its nature and you obviously couldn't have done anything to prevent it from occurring. The second part of this is that you accept what things are occurring, you don't let it affect your emotion, and you don't retaliate or react. Using nature as an example is good because you can't retaliate... I guess you could punch the snow, but it's not going to change anything.
This is all well and good for interactions with nature, but how do we apply this to our lives in grad school? Stoicism is about knowing and accepting your limitations. We can control our lives, our emotions, and our reactions to these metaphorical slaps in the face. We can't control other people's lives, emotions, or when they chose to slap us in the face. By giving up trying to control things in our life that we have no control over we end up gaining control over ourselves.
We have to accept that sometimes not everyone in your department will like us, we have to accept that some of our students are going to review us badly regardless of how well we teach, we have to accept that we can't get funding for every thing we do, and we have to accept that our friends and family are not part of our sphere of control. This doesn't mean giving in and going with the flow completely. Sometimes you do need to fight against funding agencies, and you can work harder to make some people in your department like you. But you need to know your limits, where you can affect change and where you cannot.
Stoicism is about finding inner strength, and letting go of the necessity to control the views and actions of others. I leave you with this quote by Seneca the Younger: "Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes."
For a great summary of stoicism check out Mendez's article: The Modern Wimp's Introduction to Stoicism.
[Image by Flickr user Mugley and used under creative commons license]
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