Saturday, May 27, 2017

On Patience in Running and Graduate School

Confession: I'm not a patient person. When I was about 7, my Girl Scout Troop made Christmas presents around the first week of December, and I could not wait to give my tiny little tree to my mom, and pleaded with her to let me give it to her early (I think, after much convincing, she got me to change my mind and hold off on giving her this little homemade craft). If any sort of notification of a job or application is due to arrive on a particular day, I repeatedly refresh my e-mail. I remember when AP exam scores were due to arrive by July 1 at the earliest, I'd listen for the mail truck to come around the block, and then hustle out the door each day until the scores finally arrived.

Patience is a virtue, but it is also quite difficult to maintain. People are praised for responding quickly to things and being go-getters: those who know how to hustle and follow up. But the flip side to that ambitious drive ought to be some patience, which is easier said than done. And a lack of patience can be quite detrimental. In a distance race, if you're not patient and go out too fast at the beginning of a marathon, you'll inevitably hit the wall and all of that hard work will go up in a cloud of smoke. Many of the speed workouts I used to do on the track were designed to teach me patience. By doing mile repeats at ascending pace (i.e. Mile 1 7:00 Mile 2 6:53 Mile 3 6:45 Mile 4 6:37 Mile 5 6:30), patience was paramount to a successful workout. If I went out too fast at the beginning, it could wreck the rest of the workout. I'd have to regroup and try again. But because I consistently was assigned workouts like this, that rewarded patience, I learned from the exercise and became a smarter runner as a result.

Facebook's "On This Day" feature reminded me of two opposite experiences that happened on this day: four years apart.

For a little context, particularly on the 1st note. I remember this so vividly. It was my goal during Summer 2012 to hone in on a dissertation topic so I could develop and successfully pass my dissertation proposal. I had been circling around a topic and started to feel excited about it when the semester ended. I had a few books and sources that I knew were valuable, and I set to work. I was so stoked to actually begin the process in earnest: I had already produced about 10 pages of free-writing while I was at home visiting my family.

Then, I remembered that my advisor and other professors suggested keeping tabs on recent scholarship by searching a particular database that published information about history dissertations. And then, I discovered an old dissertation that discussed similar ideas that I had, using similar sources, and employing a similar methodology. I immediately burst into tears. I was at home, all alone, and I picked up the phone and called my dad. I felt so defeated and disappointed. This is so hard! How am I ever going to come up with a unique topic? This is medieval history - people have been writing about this for so long - what will I ever have to say about it that is new and interesting? Why am I doing this? 

I probably wasn't that articulate in the moment, and beyond assuring words of love and constant support, there wasn't going to be anything my dad said that would change my gut reaction.

Disappointed, after a day or so of pouting/mourning/venting, I e-mailed my advisor that the first bout of progress had been derailed, and that I hoped to report back later in the summer with some progress. She wrote back with some words of assurance, signing off, "Vanessa, your reading will not be in vain."

Not in vain. I held onto that phrase and repeated it like a mantra for months. Not in vain as I went to the library for new books. Not in vain as I re-read sources, looking for a new angle. Not in vain as I sat down at the computer, trying to get in a page of writing. I needed patience at this moment, to realize that there would be payoff down the road for this labor, and that the setback was really a set-up for the next phrase of my graduate career.

It took months of work to finally hone in on the topic that would ultimately provide the framework for my dissertation. It didn't appear out of nowhere in an instant: it was a long time of working through ideas.

The mantra not in vain  has also come into play as I've sought to improve my running and return to running after time off. No comeback of any kind is every easy or instantaneous, but requires both patience and persistence.

A lot can happen in four years, as those two Facebook posts reminded me. And just a year after the second, I've finished grad school and am again learning patience as I work towards the next goal.

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