Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The blessings of free time

A friend of mine recently got laid off from work, as has happened to countless others in the past several months. Many of her friends offered her condolences, but I was inclined to offer her my congratulations. The wish I gave her was: “May you be inspired to use your new free time productively to accomplish what you truly want to be doing with your time, and may you find so much enjoyment in your daily activities that you don't miss working.”

I have occasionally heard people express regret when they are laid off of work, but this approach to life mystifies me for two reasons.

1) While I was growing up I never wanted a "job" or to "work"; because from an early age I'd heard people say that they couldn't come participate in whatever fun activity to which they'd been invited, or work on whatever cool project they wanted to make because they "have to go to work", and it sounded terrible to me to thus miss out on such fun.

2) After my dad retired from the military he joined his brothers working for a Labour's Union in Alaska. They'd get short-term jobs, often in remote parts of Alaska, work for a few months earning some decent money, but have no free time in which to spend it. As a result they would look forward to the seasonal lay-offs which come with such employment so that they could spend some time at home with their loved ones, doing the things they want to be doing and enjoying the fruits of their labour. As a result, I learned that being laid off from work is a good thing (so long as it happened after earning some minimum amount of cash to cover the budget for the next few months).

Yes, I do understand that many of today’s lay-offs are happening to people who do not have sufficient savings to tide them over till next they find employment, and that is sad, but still I rejoice for those who have been laid off for whom a layoff is a gift of time and who choose to make good use of that time doing things which make them happy.

Perhaps I’m even more focused upon the value of time than I was in my youth. Having finally completed and submitted my thesis I have just come off of a couple of month’s worth of concentrated effort. A period in my life wherein I was the one turning down social engagements in favour of working on my thesis so that I could finish before the deadline imposed by plane tickets to leave the country. However, as intense as that period was, and as odd as it might seem to those who have known me for years for me to give up working on sewing projects, evenings of dancing, and reading fiction, I found it easy to do knowing that it was for a limited time only. Since printing the thesis I’ve had nearly two weeks of holiday, traveling to see friends and family in the US. I’ve done dancing, I’ve started new sewing projects, I’ve picked up books to read for pleasure, and I’ve loved every moment of it. I’ve nearly one more week of vacation left, and then I’ll commence my first post-doctoral position. From what I know of the job, it should be fun, and I think I’ll enjoy it. However, I am glad to know that they will only expect a “full time” commitment—an eight hour work day still leaves plenty of time in life for entertainment unrelated to one’s occupation, and, after the past few months of “finishing up”, that will seem like a generous plenty of “free time”.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Seeing the “constructive” part of constructive criticism

Summarizing three+ years of research and talking about the significance thereof can be a daunting task. Needing to do so in a very short amount of time because one has a firm deadline, in the form of plane tickets for departure to take up a post-doctoral position makes it an interesting task. I’ve found that my reaction to this situation has varied from day to day, ranging from extreme writer’s block to highly inspired. Fortunately, when the writer’s block struck I still had other tasks to turn to such that I was still being productive with my time by gathering yet more drawings, charts, and graphs, and assembling them into ready-to print versions of the figures for thesis. Eventually, a good week later than I’d wished to do so, I completed a first draft of my final chapter, the “discussions and conclusions” part of the thesis (note: in Australia the term “thesis” is used at the PhD level, rather than “dissertation”, which is what they say in the US—I don’t know what terms are used in other countries). Oh, the joy I felt when the e-mail was sent, and I could resume working on the corrections he’d suggested to the earlier chapters.

Fortunately for me, I had reason to head into town on the next business day, and stopped in my advisor’s office that afternoon, as he was just finishing up a reply e-mail to me with his comments on the chapter. I sat and talked with him for a good hour, as he filled me in on the important points I’d not yet addressed, and why he felt that they were important. I explained that when I’d sent it to him I did feel like, perhaps, it wasn’t perfect yet, but I knew that I needed to say *something*, because it is far, far easier to edit/change text, than to write the first paragraphs on a given topic. I left that meeting feeling inspired and ready to go. As a result, when I saw his e-mail and read the comments in the chapter itself, I was ready and able to immediately work on doing the expansions he thought it needed. However, looking at the e-mail itself, I think that if I had read it before having the conversation with him, I would likely have been devastated. There is something about the thought that one’s effort isn’t deemed worthy, for whatever reason, which can either be crippling or inspiring. How easy it is to let a negative opinion on one’s work ruin one’s day, but how much better it feels when, instead, one hears the constructive, helpful suggestions one has been offered and is able to run with them, putting the suggestions to work to improve one’s efforts. This time the latter was easier to do because of the conversation. I hope that in the future, should it happen that I receive such suggestions from a mentor or colleague without such a warning conversation, I shall be able to appreciate their help and act upon their advice straight away, without any “someone doesn’t like my work” feelings standing in the way.