Thinking about how your work will be received by the audience can trigger anxiety. Instead, treat writing as a practice–an activity aimed at improving skill–to stay focused on your ideas and how to express them, rather then worrying about future rejection.
Here’s another video tip for anxious writers. In this video, I discuss how actively imagining a positive audience can help reduce anxiety about rejection or receiving negative feedback.
Many writers get stuck with doubts, while other plow through. How you respond to doubt as a writer—the confidence with which you approach difficulties that you face—has a crucial impact on your ability to write effectively. In this post, I want to briefly compare two writers of high quality who faced similar issues and responded very differently. I can’t say with certainty that the difference between the two was purely a matter of confidence, but I believe the comparison is instructive. Perhaps it’s a reflection on perfectionism, not confidence, but I think the two are related: the more confident person is able to say “eh, it ain’t perfect, but it is good enough to move forward.
Russel and Wittgenstein
Bertrand Russell won a Nobel Prize for literature for his voluminous writings and was extremely widely published as a leading 20th-century philosopher. Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was one of Russell’s students in the early 20th century, by contrast published only one book during his life, and that book (The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was dedicated to Russell) is not regarded as his most important work. In terms of their publication output during their lives, Russell was a giant, and Wittgenstein a shrimp. But from the current moment in history, however, their prestige as philosophers is equal, or perhaps Wittgenstein is given more respect.
The Limits of Logic
In the 1910s, when Wittgenstein studied with Russell, their project was logic and, to some extent, the mathematization of logical thought. The concern was how to prove (or disprove) the truth of a statement.
Russell’s book The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, published in 1914, is roughly contemporary with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, published in 1918, and their subject matter is quite similar—both are works of analytic philosophy discussing logical proof. The question of interest here is how they handle the boundaries of logic.
At the beginning of Logical Atomism, Russell acknowledges an inevitable and unavoidable subjectivity at the foundation of what he is doing. If we want to prove the truth of a statement, we need to have some starting place—some statements that we know are true. But how do we know if something is true without having proved it? And how can we start the project of proving the truth of any statement unless we have something that we have already proven true? His response is to say, approximately, “we start with something undeniable.” Not true, only undeniable. He discusses what he means by undeniable for a paragraph or two, and then he moves on to other issues. Essentially, he says, “well, we can’t follow the rules of proof for our first statement, so we’ll just ignore those rules and accept our first statement as true because it seems undeniable.” Practically speaking, that makes perfect sense; logically speaking, it’s almost inexcusable. Emotionally speaking, I would say that this is the choice of a person who has confidence in the value of their work, despite some flaws.
In the penultimate sixth chapter of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein similarly struggles with what is either the same, or a very similar problem: he sees the logician as existing within the system being examined, creating the same sort of unavoidable subjectivity that concerned Russell. His response to this, however, quite different. In the sixth chapter, he discusses how one cannot get the necessary objectivity, and that lacking that, one has no grounds on which to speak. And he concludes the book with his seventh chapter, which I reproduce in full here: “Of that whereof one can’t speak, one must remain silent.” That’s the whole seventh chapter. One sentence. And Wittgenstein never again published in his lifetime. Logically speaking, this is perfectly sound. Practically speaking, however, it leads to paralysis. Emotionally speaking, I would say this is the choice of a person who doubts the value of their work.
Perfectionism and Confidence
To me, this is a story about confidence and a willingness to accept a logical flaw. Both Russell and Wittgenstein recognized a similar logical limit, but Russell said “I will still proceed” while Wittgenstein said “This project is meaningless.” To me, logically speaking, Wittgenstein is in the right here. If you are interested in a system of building certain truth through proof, the whole structure of truth fails if it is built on something that is not provably true. Wittgenstein recognizes this and essentially says “this project isn’t worth the effort because it’s ultimately fruitless.”
Russell’s response is very different, and I view it as a manifestation of confidence or even arrogance. Russell says, “weak foundations be damned, I’m still going to pursue this project.”
I don’t know what emotions and thoughts swayed the two men, or whether the issue was really confidence. But as a lesson for struggling writers, I think it can be instructive: the writer who pushes forward ignoring problems, produces work for publication, while the writer who takes those problems seriously gets stuck, and even is blocked from publishing.
Getting projects finished and published simply takes a willingness to push ahead, despite problems and weaknesses in your research.
This is not to excuse shoddy work, but rather to acknowledge the impossibility of creating perfection, and to prefer flawed productivity with inactivity brought on by doubts and imperfections.
A scholar in a fit of despair, writes “who cares about my work?” It is a poignant lament, and I do not downplay the emotional distress that would trigger such an outburst. This is, I think, a doubt that strikes many scholars—the fear that their work is unimportant and/or only matters to a tiny audience of specialists. Elsewhere, I have written about this from the angle of the inherent value of research.
Here, I want to look at this differently. I want to look at this lament as a possible starting place for an exercise of exploration, of scholarly/academic thinking, and of practical writing skills. Generally, I would say that, in the abstract, a true philosopher would be interested to explore any unanswered question: what is this, how does this work, and how does this interact with the world? Whatever your work might be—let’s call it “topic X” or just “X”—we can explore what it is, where it came from, how it operates, and how it interacts with the rest of the world. To an open, inquisitive mind, such questions can be asked about anything. A child doesn’t ask about the importance of some enthusiasm they find, they simply pursue it and try to learn more about it. The older we get, the more likely that we feel pressure to do something that others will think important, and thus we lose some of the freedom of inquiry that makes exploration not just possible but interesting.
Before getting into some of the specifics that I want to talk about, I want to note, generally, how value is at least partly dependent on those who perceive it. I say “partly” because I want to avoid debate over whether value is entirely subjective. For the purposes of this post, I am purely interested in the subjective aspect of value, which is what counts if your concern is that no one cares about your work or if your interest is to get published, sell books, and inform, educate, or entertain others. Things are valuable if someone values them. Of course, different people value different things, so values attributed to various ideas may vary widely. The fact that many people do not recognize value in some X does not mean that X has no value.
Many scholars pursue topics from personal interest/value, even though their interests seem unimportant to few or no other people. This propensity to study that which others think important contributes to the stereotype of the “Ivory Tower” divorced from the “real world.” Having an unusual perspective almost guarantees that someone will accuse you of being out of touch with the real world (even if your unusual perspective is based on empirical study of the real world). When doing independent and original work, there is always the danger that your topic, whatever its validity or potential value, will not catch the popular trend of whatever research is in style, and may not get the respect your work might have earned had research trends developed in a different direction. At the same time, however, doing original work also has the potential reward of other people recognizing value where they had not seen it before. Scholars are supposed to do original work precisely because that originality—that value others had not seen before—is how the research community evolves.
In short, value has a large subjective element. Being original means seeing value where others have not, and then working to make that value apparent to other people, too. But seeing value where others have not also brings up the danger that other people won’t care (at least until they’re convinced that there is real value).
As a cry of despair, “who cares about X?” is an expression of the thought “no one cares about X; X is not important.” But as a question, it is amenable to the kind of analysis that scholars tend to carry out, and can provide insight into the topic at hand.
What happens when we take the question “who cares about X?” as the start of an intellectual exploration? What happens if we do as scholars do, and enumerate those who fall into the category of interest (i.e., the grouop of people who do care)? And when we examine reasons that people fall into the category? We may never be 100% sure of the motivations of others, but as scholars we can absolutely explore the possible motivations of people (including ourselves) and thus gain some insight into the possible importance of a subject. Simply examining who does care can offer a lot of insight.
Caring about some issue that doesn’t interest others can feel selfish, especially if that issue is somehow related to personal experience. People sometimes talk about “me-search” as a bad thing, but a question that is important to one person is often important to many, so “me-search” about some experience that you had may provide insight into an experience that many others also have.
Saying “I care because of my history,” that’s a weak foundation for research and seems fraught with personal bias. But if you go one analytical step, and say “I care because of my history, and my history of has characteristics X, Y, and Z,” then you move toward an academic statement in which something more general is being defined. Those characteristics X, Y, and Z, each may be relevant to many other people. The characteristics themselves are also subject to further analysis or definition, which could indicate other issues of relevance. The more you pursue that analytical approach, the more likely you are to find some connection to other issues and to issues that other people have found important. Your life experience may be unique, but even so, it shares similarities with the life experience of others. In those similarities lie the elements of ideas that concern many people.
Face your fears: exercise
If you lament that nobody cares about your work, you might benefit from facing those fears directly as part of an attempt to objectively analyze the potential audience from many different angles:
- Are there authors who have written about your subject? Who are they? We can assume they care about your work, or at least would be interested in other work in their field.
- Are there any authors who have written about specific aspects of your work (e.g., using a method from a different field or in a novel way, methodologists might be interested even if they’re not interested in your general topic)?
- Are there any people who would benefit from your insights?
It’s possibly also useful to make a matching list of people who don’t care. But in making such a list, don’t assume that people won’t care; stick to people that you know don’t care (e.g., colleagues who have explicitly expressed disdain; friends who just have different interests). If you want to exercise your imagination, exercise it trying to think about who might value your work, rather than those who would not.
In physics, “conservation of momentum” refers to the basic principle that energy (like momentum) moves around within a system, but is never actually lost. In writing, momentum is a much more personal, emotional thing and it can be all too easily lost, especially for writers who struggle with anxiety-related writing blocks. Writing momentum is valuable in that your whole neurophysiology begins to resonate with the project on which you’re working. If you have worked on your project every day, or at least worked with some degree of productivity, the ideas about what to do and where to go and different options and different issues are much more clear and present in mind than they are if you have spent the last week focusing on seeing tourist attractions while on vacation.
For a writer who has been writing successfully for a long time, there’s a lot of momentum built up. The body and mind of such a writer have deeply worn patterns of behavior that are relatively easy to reactivate after some time off. For a writer who struggles with anxiety and who is prone to writer’s block—me, among others—breaks in momentum can be very difficult.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been writing about dealing with anxiety blocks—about how to get past anxiety to engage with writing in the first place. That’s a subject with which I have extensive personal experience, having struggled with anxiety-related writing blocks multiple times in my life. Indeed, this spring, I suffered some minor health problems—just enough to derail me for a time, and I stopped writing. And then, having lost my momentum, and struggling with anxiety, I found it difficult to get back into it. I have been rebuilding momentum, though, and I hope to get my writing levels and consistency back up. It can be hard to get momentum, but once you’ve got it, it eases the process. It is good to conserve momentum.
What does momentum feel like?
In my experience, momentum feels good. Momentum is characterized by recent progress on a project, when both the project feels good and the progress I’ve made feels like progress (i.e., I don’t feel like I’m just spinning my wheels, even if I have just decided to throw away a weak draft). When you have momentum, you think about your project in the spare moments. If you’re running errands, having momentum means that you may have some idea about your project while standing on line at the store, or while waiting for the gas tank to fill, or while riding public transit. If you have momentum, you might have dreams related to your project—even dreams that offer some insight. If you have momentum, you can focus more quickly and precisely on a specific project and zero-in on the details and concerns of that individual project.
By contrast, if you don’t have momentum, it’s more likely that you will scan a wide range of possible projects, and even if you pick one project as the one to work on, you will be thinking generally about the project, rather than focusing in on specific issues. To be sure, thinking generally about a project is a good thing, and is an important part of the writing process—you need to have a big vision—but when you’re making progress—when you have momentum—that big vision is implicit and your other concerns can flow naturally from that driving force.
Momentum feels confident, at least on the small scale: the confidence to take some action to move the project forward. This is a confidence built out of regular process and practice: if you have consistently made steps that move the project forward, it’s easy to feel that you can take yet one more step.
Momentum is neurophysiological activity
When you do the same thing repeatedly, your body gets used to doing it. If you spend a lot of your time thinking about one specific project or subject, then, not surprisingly, you’re more likely to think about that subject given a free moment. In idle moments, your thoughts are likely to turn to something that has recently been on your mind. This is especially valuable, I think, if it is a good thing and something you feel good about, because then you build confidence and comfort. By contrast, feeling bad about your project is a way to build negative momentum: if you force yourself to suffer through work, that is likely to build aversion that reduces motivation and ultimately reduces momentum.
Ideally, you can approach your project with enthusiasm, and then work on it regularly and build good momentum. Lots of people do this. If you have ever talked with someone who is genuinely excited about their work, then there’s a good chance you’re talking with someone that has developed good project momentum. If all you ever think about is your work, you may be boring at parties, but it makes writing easier.
Momentum does not require obsession, however. Momentum requires a good balance—enough work to keep re-activating the appropriate neurophysiology, but also enough rest to allow those physiological systems to rest and regenerate. For many writers, good writing momentum is something that involves three or four hours of writing a day. Writing is not generally a work-all-day task. It is, indeed, only one part of the responsibilities of an academic or a professional writers in other fields.
Conserve your momentum
It takes effort to get momentum going: the first steps of getting started are the most difficult. Starting a project can be hard because you’re not sure where to go. You may have the enthusiasm that goes with new projects, but you have to battle with making many many decisions about the direction for the work to take. That takes a lot of effort. Having made those decisions, and having the whole train of reasoning relatively fresh in your mind is a large part of the momentum you gather. If you don’t take action to keep that momentum—namely working on your project every day or almost every day—you will lose the momentum and have to invest the extra effort to get started again.
Restarting a project, too, takes extra effort. If you’ve left a project aside for a while, you may need to refamiliarize yourself with it. You may need to reconstruct or refresh your vision of what you want to accomplish and how you plan on accomplishing it. Again, once you get moving, a lot of the questions become clearer when they are freshly considered.
I want to acknowledge that there are good times to set aside a project for a little while, despite the loss of momentum, but those spots should be picked carefully. In particular, it is often good to take a little time away from a project after completing a draft. Stepping away from a draft for a time can give you a new perspective, which is useful. The momentum that I have been describing does encompass a perspective and focus that helps you produce work. But when it comes time to criticize that work, it is good to shift perspective—to see the work with fresh eyes, as the expression goes. That’s a break in momentum, but it’s less problematic because it occurs at a natural break in the process, so it’s less disruptive than dropping a project in its midst. It’s easier to regain momentum at such break points because taking a break is part of the plan. Still, even at those break points, it’s pretty important not to let too much time elapse before you get back to work.
Building momentum takes effort, but it need not be some grueling torture. If you are currently stuck and have no current momentum, every little step you takes helps build it. You’re writing nothing? Write an e-mail to a friend. That helps build momentum. You can write social media posts but not your work? Write some social media posts and remind yourself that it is writing, too. And then try to write a sentence or two about your work. There are two keys to build good, sustainable momentum: (1) do something; make some effort; if yesterday was unproductive, try to do just a little today; if yesterday was productive, try to keep that level of productivity going; and (2) do it gently, so that it is a process that may be difficult but is not painful.
If you’ve lost your momentum, you can build it again with patience and persistence. And if you have it, value it and build on it. Writing momentum helps you write, but it takes effort to maintain it. Conserve your writing momentum by writing regularly.
When I started this post, I was not thinking abut writer’s block or tips for dealing with it. I was thinking about managing the many things that compete for attention. But as I wrote about it, I realized that I was, in fact, writing about the way competing ideas can lead to writing paralysis in which the authors sits debating which idea to write about—an experience that can easily be recognized by many writers who are struggling to write. (I have written on this subject before.)
Recently I was talking with a writer who was bemoaning the many different things she had to say and commenting on how that made writing difficult. This is a common issue: for a lot of writers—myself included—many different ideas compete for attention. But, since only one idea can be put on the page at a time (or, at least, given my technology and abilities, I can only put one word on the page at a time. I assume you face a similar limitation), a lot of writing becomes a question of making a choice between competing alternatives.
I started this post thinking that I was going to write about gardening and how my relationship to gardening could provide insight into the practice of writing (because writing is the topic of this blog, after all). But as I began, several different ideas popped into my head, which made me think about another writer who was recently lamenting all the ideas that she wanted to put on the page, and the difficulty in moving forward in the face of such competing ideas. As I, too, was faced with many competing ideas, I thought I’d write about that.
Competing ideas can lead to doubt. If you have several different ideas that you could focus on, it’s possible to spend a lot of time debating which idea to write about, and that debate can trigger anxiety, especially if you criticize each potential idea in turn. Rather than getting trapped in vacillation, it’s beneficial to choose a single focus and work on that, even though it means setting aside the other ideas for a time. (For a time, but not necessarily for ever. After all, the sooner you finish writing about one of your many ideas, the sooner you get to move on to writing about the others.)
Association of ideas
Every idea can spark another (or more than one). Each idea is a pebble thrown into the stream of consciousness, sending out ripples in all directions. For me, the phrase “association of ideas” brings to mind my master’s thesis (though it was written 25 years ago), which was literally concerned with John Locke’s philosophy and his ideas about the “association of ideas,” and its role in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Locke’s “association of ideas” was about how ideas can become connected for non-logical reasons, where I am more interested in ideas that do have some reasonable connection (gardening and writing, for example, are connected because they are both practices, and thus share some features). But even if we only make connections through reasonable paths, still, each idea can spark many new ones.
If we look at all the ideas that present themselves in response to a single idea, we see a vast web of connected ideas. That web can be viewed as an array of opportunities: every strand of the web might provide the focus for a piece of writing. But that same web of ideas can also trap us, just as a spider’s web catches a fly: we sit down to write, and then each associated idea that pops into mind ties a thread of distraction—a temptation that the essay move in a different direction. In a short time, with the associated ideas multiplying, we are pulled in dozens of directions at once, and can become immobilized.
When you’re pulled in different directions, you can get paralyzed: do I go this way or that? Am I going to write about this or about that? Getting paralyzed is bad. Getting paralyzed is unproductive, frustrating, and depressing. You don’t want to get paralyzed.
To avoid paralysis, you need to make a consequential decision in the face of uncertainty: which course of action will be best? There is a definite cost in making the wrong decision: if I invest my efforts into a project that fails in some way, then I have lost that valuable time. It is this dynamic that creates the paralysis: “I want to make the right decision, but I’m not sure which the right decision is!”
But focusing on the different possible directions to explore can actually obscure another decision: the choice between (1) choosing the best subject for writing and (2) writing on some less-than-best subject. Every minute you spend considering your choice of subject is a minute that you don’t spend writing. In terms of developing a good writing practice and a good relationship with writing, working on a less-than-optimal project is the better choice.
The difference in value and quality between a finished project based on idea X (the best idea) and a finished project about idea Y (the second best) is much smaller than the difference between a complete project and an incomplete one. If you finish a project centered on a weak idea, you still have a project to present. If you get paralyzed debating which will be the best project, then you don’t have anything at all.
Making a choice—however imperfect—gives you a better chance of success. And it’s more emotionally satisfying, too. The paralysis that comes from wondering what to write can be painful. There’s a famous quote that “writing is easy—just stare at a blank page until your forehead starts to bleed.” You know who stares at the blank page? It’s someone who is paralyzed by many choices. Writers don’t stare at a blank page because they have nothing to say; people always have something to say! I don’t like to use universal generalizations, but I feel absolutely safe in saying that everyone has something to say. You may tell yourself that your ideas are not interesting or important (it’s easy to imagine people thinking that your ideas are uninteresting and unimportant); you may temporarily go blank when sitting to write; but you have something to say—probably many things to say. Paralysis comes from rejecting potential options or by vacillating between those options. The writer who is pouring words onto the page doesn’t think writing is torture (at least not at the moment that they are pouring words onto the page).
To break the paralysis that comes with too many options, it helps to prioritize: which ideas do you care about the most? Trying to prioritize can help provide focus. Firstly, the task of prioritizing itself requires a certain amount of focus, and, if you do it, can also provide some momentum to move forward. Prioritization is facilitated by writing down a list of different ideas (trying to prioritize without making a list allows the prioritization scheme to shift around too much—it allows you to escape the choices that help break paralysis). When you start writing different ideas on the page in order to make a list of different potential topics, you are taking the first steps in putting various ideas onto the page. If a list of priorities is viewed as a to-do list, it can also help assuage any distress that comes from leaving a specific idea out of the text: if you have five important things to say, a list of priorities can help you remember that working on the first thing doesn’t exclude working on the second thing at a later time. A list of priorities as a to-do list is something of a promise to yourself to attend to the lower priority items as soon as you have finished with the high priority items: so you’re not neglecting things, you’re just focusing and planning.
A list of priorities can be a good writing exercise for someone struggling with writer’s block. Firstly, it gets you to identify in words the different ideas you want to discuss. Secondly, it allows you to cover a large amount of territory (each item in the list might be a subject for pages of writing). Thirdly, there is some emotional comfort in thinking that dealing with a single item on a to-do list is the most efficient way to deal with the list as a whole. Fourthly, a list of priorities is just a tool to help you get moving, so it doesn’t have to be perfect or neat—it’s not something to show other people.
Of course, there is some danger that writing a list of priorities itself becomes a significant task if you try to get it just right. Don’t go there! Make a quick list, pick the top item on it, and get to work. You can always change course later, but in the moment, it is crucial to pick one idea for a focus and work on that idea for a while.
My previous post—about weaponization of doubt—was written just a few days ago, while I started writing this post months ago. I got stuck mostly because it had gotten bloated and I wanted to either cut it short or cut it into two pieces. I haven’t done that, but I feel like this is a related subject, and I wanted to follow up a little. Doubt is one of the big barriers that scholars face—uncertainty cannot be eliminated by empirical science—and if scholarship isn’t producing any objective, certain truth, then why is it any better than just making up random stories? In this post, I’m not really addressing the philosophical question of whether or how research is better than fiction—that would take me more space than this long post, and I’m not sure that I could do a good job arguing the point. Instead, I want to accept that there is something that makes the works of scholars valuable, and talk about some of the other doubts that arise even for scholars who aren’t bothered by the philosophical/logical uncertainty suggested by the problem of induction (or by other critiques of philosophical attempts at “truth,” such as the post-modern challenges to the idea of objective truth.
The block: “My research isn’t important”
I’ve known more than one dissertation writer who was on the verge of quitting because they felt their work was so far divorced from the “real world” that it was essentially meaningless. The common notion that the “ivory tower” of academia is somehow out of touch with the real world is a big emotional issue. If you believe your work is so esoteric that no one will care, or so narrowly focused that it will have minimal real-world impact, then you face a serious barrier to motivation: Why work through the frustration of research and writing to no effect? If your work doesn’t matter, why do it?
In this post, I argue that the value of scholarship is great enough to justify the effort and frustration. This post is closely related to my earlier tip 11: You have something worth saying. In that post, I focused on internal doubt and feeling overwhelmed by ideas. In this post, I’m looking more specifically at doubts about the value of academia and academic research. The better you feel about academia and research, the easier it is to invest effort in it. And the easier it is to invest effort, the easier it is to develop a positive and productive writing practice. (Additionally, but off the topic of writer’s block, the better you feel about your work, the easier it is to write things that other people will appreciate…but that’s a separate issue, perhaps for a future post. Please let me know if you would be interested.)
Why do people think scholarship is meaningless or valueless?
There are several reasons that people come to think their scholarly work is meaningless. Some are external, for example, the scholar who worries that no one will read or appreciate their work. Some are internal reason. For example, when you learn something new, your old work may seem off-base to you. Or you think that your work is incredibly narrow, or too abstruse, or otherwise limited. In this post, I am more interested in the internal question of whether there is any inherent value in research. If you believe in the value of your work, the size of your audience will be less important. (But as I suggest above, believing in your work will help attract an audience. Again—that’s a subject for a different post.)
The existential crisis
I have heard more than one scholar cry, “Why am I doing this? It doesn’t mean anything; it won’t help anyone; it won’t have an impact on the world. It’s all just mental masturbation!” If you have a cry of despair anything like this, it’s hard to move forward. It’s difficult to maintain motivation for things that seem meaningless (in the sense of having value within some larger framework, i.e., “my life is meaningful,” not in the sense of sense vs. nonsense). Existential crises are hardly the exclusive domain of academia. People in all walks of life can struggle with doubt that their life is meaningful, which can be a tremendous source of distress. The field of existential psychology generally argues that emotional health is highly dependent on whether a person sees meaning in their experiences (see, e.g., Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). If you doubt that your research is meaningful—if you think it has no value—then it’s pretty depressing to work on it.
Why does the crisis arise?
There are many different reasons that people come to doubt their research’s value, and to try to address them all would reach far beyond the scope of a single blog post (and this is already a long post). Generally, however, there is some trigger that leads a researcher to think that their work isn’t valuable, which drains motivation and creates anxiety about the future. I want to exclude from this discussion doubt about your abilities. Thinking you lack ability may make you feel your efforts are meaningless (“why bother, I never will do it right!”), but that’s not a critique of academia. In this post, I want to specifically focus on doubts about academia and research, and the idea that academia is so flawed that it’s meaningless.
What is academia?
In academia, ideally, we seek abstract objective truth—things that are true for everyone. Laws of nature. The sciences are, in a way, most emblematic of academia—seeking evidence by which we discover the operation of nature in a way that is generally true. A chemist looking for a compound with certain properties will assume that laboratory experiments reflect the general behavior of the compound. A computer scientist developing an algorithm will assume that the properties (runtime, for example) will be consistent with general principles. Even in fields where the very idea of objective truth is explicitly rejected, there is an underlying presumption that scholarly work—the use of evidence and reason—has some underlying general value. Even a Jacques Derrida, who wrote work far outside of scholarly norms and who questioned ideas of absolute objective truth, retains some underlying sense of right and wrong perspectives—after all, why argue against objective truth if you really believe that all ideas are purely subjective?
The limits of academia
The search for answers to questions or solutions to problems, however, is limited in many different ways. There is the inevitable uncertainty—it’s disappointing to find out that academia rarely offers certainty. There are the political dimensions: academic institutions, like all institutions made of people, are made up of different people with different motivations, purposes, and desires, which creates the political reality of academia: your work isn’t evaluated in a vacuum, but rather by self-interested people. There are the practical dimensions of research: the ideal experiment may not be possible, and we’re forced to do projects that only make small steps towards that ideal.
The practical dimensions of research—our ability to gather and process information—force scholars to focus narrowly even when they are generally interested in broad questions. The grand and noble search for, e.g., a cure to cancer, a solution to homelessness, or the best possible economic policy, etc., gets reduced to one specific analysis of one specific factor among the many, in an attempt to produce research that contributes to understanding a larger whole. It’s disheartening to think that the one specific factor you’re studying is only one among many, and also disheartening to think that the one experiment only reveals a little about the large picture (and even perhaps only a little about that one specific factor).
The sense that research is meaningless is also partly an unfortunate outgrowth of the nature of research practice, or, more generally, a natural progression of human experience: as humans, we change and grow, including the things we value. And, in particular, we experience a big difference between novelty and familiarity. It is said that “variety is the spice of life,” and “familiarity breeds contempt.” Both sayings address the general shift from new to known. With the new, we’re likely to focus our attention on the best parts, and not notice problems. With the known, however, we it’s harder to avoid problematic aspects. The product that looked so promising when you researched it, stops working smoothly. The journey that promised such fun when you set out, suffers through periods of hot, dusty, boredom. The relationship that starts with passionate love, ends in boredom or hatred. And the research that starts with enthusiasm, gets bogged down in details, bureaucracy, politics, etc.
The value of research
At risk of over-generalizing, I will argue that whatever the cause of your existential crisis, you can ease it by focusing on the value of research.
What is the value of research? Why might it meaningful to you? There are number of different possibilities, in two main classes:
- Personal value
- you want to satisfy curiosity/learn
- you enjoy it
- it provides career opportunities
- it provides a sense of self-worth
- it develops useful skills (e.g., critical thinking, communication)
- Value for others
- it solves social problems
- it helps others solve personal problems
- it entertains/amuses/educates other people
Research, despite all its limitations, offers the potential for all of these. It is important to remember them when the practical and political realities of academia can easily make it seem like your work isn’t important. It is, for example, easier to believe that your work is valuable if you think lots of people will read it than if you’re thinking that no one will. If you’re find enjoyment in the work, or you think it will help you to a better career, then you may not need to think many people will read it (for example, a dissertation may have a big impact on a career, even if it only has a small audience). The more dimensions of value you see, the easier it is to maintain motivation. If you say only “I enjoy it,” that’s less motivation than saying “I enjoy it; it will help me have a good career; it will help me do work better; and it will help other people, too.”
Rediscovering value or finding it anew
It seems something of an irony that scholars come to view their work as meaningless when the basic work of the scholar is to understand and explain the world, and thus give meaning to the incomprehensible. In the abstract, isn’t knowledge of the world valuable? And, more practically, isn’t knowledge useful?
In my experience, the people who enter academia are generally interested in and motivated by a search for a truth that has some personal or external value (or both). People sometimes set out in academia motivated by curiosity, trying to find answers that are personally valuable. Many set out motivated by some altruistic desire to help people (e.g., to cure depression, or eliminate homelessness, etc.). Fame, fortune, and power are usually more common outside academia, so people who want them generally won’t end up in academia unless they also see positive value in academia.
If you’re struggling with anxiety related to doubt about the value of academia, it’s important to reconnect to your personal sense of purpose: what is important to you? What value can you find in academia if you momentarily set aside the myriad frustrations and look to the most hopeful possibilities? Consider the different personal and social benefits that could follow from your in the most optimistic outcomes. Look back to the reasons you entered academia and ask whether they still are important to you. It’s possible that you have changed and grown and that, therefore, some other choice of career might suit you better—it is possible to have a good life outside academia even after investing years. But, I think for most scholars facing the existential crisis, the initial motivations get obscured behind the many frustrating practical details of research.
Exercise: Why did you enter academia? What were your hopes and dreams then? Taking time to write about your original passions can help you reconnect with an early sense of purpose, and that sense of purpose can then provide support for developing and dealing with the practical limitations of academic research.
Narrowly focused projects
The well-known expression argues that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In academia, good intentions generally pave the way to narrowly focused projects of small scope. (And such projects can come to feel like hell, especially if things go wrong.) It is likely that every decision that you made en route to your project was the best decision you could make with the best intention to produce the highest quality research. (Of course, you—like anyone—might have made some mistakes along the way, but your making a mistake is hardly a reason to think that academia is suddenly worthless (nor is it reason to think you’re not good enough). Making a mistake and having to fix it is frustrating—but that’s true in and out of academia, and you’re just as likely to make a mistake after you leave academia as you are while in it.)
Academia produces narrowly focused projects because, practically speaking, the best way to study things, especially to gather empirical evidence, is to focus narrowly. Without narrow focus, projects include too many dimensions and aspects for any sort of close analysis in any reasonable time. The world is vast and complicated, but scholars/researchers, as humans, have limited time. It is certainly more imaginatively powerful to do research that encompasses the whole scope of an issue—homelessness, mental health, market regulations, world hunger, Victorian literature, etc.—than to do something tightly focused—for example, an analysis of one specific market regulation and its effect on one specific product. But, pragmatically speaking, a close analysis of a specific data set using specific theories focusing on specific aspects of an issue takes time and effort both to execute and to explain to others (i.e., to write it up and publish). The larger the scope, the more time necessary. Scholars who want to contribute to a research community have to make a choice to limit the scope of their work so that they can finish.
For those worried about narrow focus, it’s valuable to remember that research is a community effort to which scholars usually contribute by adding little pieces of work. Only occasionally does a scholar completely redefine a field in the way that Einstein did for physics, and it is even more rare that the full scope of such a revolution is recognized in its time. For the most part, scholars work within theoretical schools that have been developed over previous years, and they contribute details to more fully understand the implications of the theories.
It is this process of many scholars contributing to a community process that has led to the many benefits of research in sciences, social sciences, and humanities. (I’m not going to try to argue that research does lead to benefits—one the one hand, I think it’s obvious, and on the other it leads into a mire of evaluation: what counts as a benefit?)
Focusing on details can lead to losing sight of larger context
If you become narrowly focused on details of the project you have chosen, it’s possible to lose sight of the context in which it was created.
Exercise: Reconnect your current project with the motivations that inspired it.
What were your initial motivations? What inspired you? Were you motivated by curiosity? Was there some specific problem that you wanted to address?
How far are you now from those previous motivations? Have you abandoned them? Or can you see how they led you to where you are now?
The size of your audience is not the only measure of value
One specific cause of distress for many scholars is the idea that their work is only read by a handful of people. Let’s acknowledge that it is often the case that work is only read by a few. Does that necessarily mean that the work is not valuable? Many philosophers have been rejected in their own time but appreciated by posterity. In the middle of the 20th century, some scientists started writing about climate change. Was their work unimportant simply because it was largely ignored?
The fact that only a small number of people might read your work may be disappointing, but it is not an accurate reflection of its value. (As I mentioned above, a dissertation can have a big impact on your career even if only read by a handful.) A small audience can have large influence.
Academia is not perfect, but that’s no reason to assume that it’s not valuable. New ideas are accepted only slowly. Good research often depends on precisely the sort of narrow focus that limits its scope, and limits the size of interested audiences. This does not mean, however, that the research is not a valuable contribution to a valuable communal exercise.
If you have lost sight of the purpose and value in your work, it can be hard to maintain motivation. It’s crucial to find again a sense of purpose. It’s possible that you won’t (in which case you should probably leave academia). But if you step back and think about your original purposes and the general aspirations of academia, I believe you can rediscover a sense of the value of research, and that sense of value can help you rediscover motivation.
In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wrote something to the effect of “With subjectivism in philosophy comes anarchism in politics.” (I’m too lazy to go hunt up the proper quote, so this may be way off base, but my getting the quote right doesn’t change the basic argument here.) As someone who rejects objectivism in philosophy, who recognizes inevitable subjective elements in all reasoning, and who wants political stability as well as some element of democratic rule, this sentence struck me as problematic, even wrong. Of course, Russell lived through the Nazi era, when big lies were spread to create an alternate reality that inspired horrific acts of violence. I had not yet seen the weaponization of doubt employed by too many, but especially the big business interests and many political actors.
David Hume is perhaps most famous for his framing of the problem of induction. Induction is the process of making generalizations from specific examples. So, for example, suppose you are looking at trees, and every tree you see has green leaves. Induction takes those many observations and makes a general rule: “trees have green leaves.” The problem of induction is that there is no guarantee that future observations will resemble past observations. To Hume, this was mostly important in distinguishing what we know (with absolute certainty beyond doubt) and what we believe (with good reason, but only as a conclusion from experience, which is necessarily fraught with the problem that the future might not resemble the past). Unfortunately, this basic logical problem has become used to much effect (and, in my opinion, much harm).
Much of science proceeds, to some extent, on the basis of “the best-tested theory”—on theories that have been tested and passed those tests, but are subject to further testing. According to the theories of Karl Popper—a philosopher who developed a famous response to Hume’s problem—we can have some certain knowledge in science: we can know (with certainty) that things are false. Because we can know that things are false, we can test and disprove theories, and thus eliminate bad ideas. This basic structure is common in many fields, where a “null hypothesis” is shown to be false (or at least highly improbable), and an “alternate hypothesis” is therefore accepted.
In the hands of reasonable people who are interested in discovering the truth, this basic structure allows for progress, and thus scholars develop a general consensus agreement about the basic facts. It is not a fully-determined consensus—there is debate and there are those who reject some or most of the consensus, but there is a general acceptance of most basic ideas.
But in the hands of those who have some agenda other than truth, Hume’s problem becomes a weapon to paralyze an enemy and seize power.
It has been widely reported that in the 1970s, scientists at Exxon identified the problem of global warming, and, seeing that such knowledge might hurt their business, the company developed a strategy of questioning global warming science. (It should be noted that Exxon was not necessarily at the forefront of this. For example, check out this article from 1965.) Hume’s problem makes it possible to question every theory, no matter how much evidence: “well,” you say, “that is suggestive, but it can’t be considered conclusive.” In many cases you can offer some alternative explanation. This has been happening less with climate change over the last several years, as evidence becomes even more overwhelming, but it used to happen much more often. I remember one man asking me “well, if it’s caused by humans, why are the polar caps on Mars melting” (implying, I presume, that the Martian polar caps melting showed some solar-system-wide force was at work).
But the most extreme weaponization of doubt that I have ever seen is the current GOP assault on the credibility of the American election systems. Let’s start by admitting that the American election systems are imperfect: there are mistakes made, and some of those mistakes may even impact the outcome of votes. That is why, in addition to systems for gathering and tabulating votes, there are systems already in place for checking the results of an election. Of course, these systems, too, are imperfect.
Like any knowledge based on observation, the election-checking systems can always be challenged by the question at the heart of Hume’s problem: just because we haven’t observed something (vote fraud) yet, doesn’t mean we won’t observe it in the future (if we run another audit). What the GOP keeps doing, in calling for further investigation into the election, is relying on the basic logic of Hume’s problem. This is the argument that is driving the current audit of votes in Maricopa county: “sure, there were already multiple audits, but just because they didn’t find fraud doesn’t mean the fraud doesn’t exist; it just means that the audits didn’t look for the right things.” Whatever checks you might carry out, you can make up some new claim and say “You haven’t proved this didn’t happen.” Case in point, the Maricopa county audit has apparently been looking for traces of bamboo to prove that fake ballots were introduced into the election count by sinister Asians. “Sure, you didn’t find any local interference, but what about the Chinese? They managed to inject thousands of fake ballots into the system to help Biden.” And, yes, I’m sure that no one has checked to see if the ballots were faked and forged from China” (And let’s just forget the fact that they did check that the counted ballots were from registered voters, and that no voter voted multiple times, so for the Chinese scheme to work, they must have somehow managed to make fake ballots only for people who were registered but who did not vote without making any ballots for people who were not registered or who registered and voted.)
Hume correctly pointed out that we cannot prove with certainty the claims we make based on observation. But, while this is logically correct, when that doubt is used in bad faith to ignore the vast preponderance of evidence, there’s a big problem.
I’m no big fan of the Democrats; I think they have been too complicit in many of the worst failures of the USA during my lifetime. And, in my heart, I am conservative (not politically conservative, but actually conservative in that I would like to mostly keep things as they are—there are things that need changing, but let’s only change those things and keep all the rest). But in contrast to the Republican party, it can at least be said that the Democrats are apparently interested in truth, evidence, and data based on observations, all of which are really good things. During my adult life, it seems to me that the Republican party has consistently strayed farther and farther from the truth. I only remember Watergate from a child’s perspective, but obviously the honesty of Nixon was an issue. And the GOP—at least some members of it—called on the president to step down when it became clear he was a criminal (and apparently, those people were willing to vote to impeach). The Reagan administration at least tried to cloak its work in theory—the Laffer curve was at least an academic theory promulgated by an academic. Stuff like The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray at least tried to give an intellectual defense to GOP perspectives. I don’t think much of the way Herrnstein and Murray handle data (I think they confuse correlation with causation), but I would give them the benefit of a doubt that it’s just bad data analysis, rather than intentionally deceitful analysis. The investigation of the Clintons was a preliminary weaponization of doubt—it started with a supposed real estate fraud (Whitewater), but reached out in any direction it could to find reason to attack Clinton, ultimately resulting in Clinton’s impeachment for lying about his relationship with Lewinsky. There were no real limits on an investigation that said “we haven’t found any fraud yet, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The second Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction and many other things, but they seemed to be trying to come up with realistic alternate hypotheses. But the GOP since is all about baseless conspiracies that no evidence set to rest. No matter how much evidence there was that Obama was born in the US, the birther conspiracy just rolled on.
GOP attempts to “find the truth” about the 2020 election are bad faith arguments. They have nothing to do with finding the truth. They are weaponization of doubt to gain political power. Whenever confronted with actual evidence that there wasn’t fraud (like recounts of votes and audits of votes), the GOP answers, “well, you just haven’t found it yet.” It’s not a reasonable search for truth; it’s an attempt to gain political power by reducing people’s faith in the electoral system.
It should be noted that my primary interest is in finding the truth. The fact that I prefer Democrats to Republicans follows from my interest in the truth. I do not prefer Democratic policies because they are proposed by Democrats (Indeed, I loathe many Democratic policies). Instead, I prefer policies that are based on the truth, and then prefer the party that shows closer adherence to the policies that I would espouse. My objection that the GOP is arguing is bad faith is not based on my preference for Democrats, but rather on my observation that they are weaponizing doubt and engaging in intentional deflection, distraction, and disinformation. I believe in the truth. And that belief shapes my preference for politicians who respect and respond to the truth.