By Hannah Hogan |
I’m always on the lookout for ways not only to research more effectively or be more productive, but also to enjoy the PhD process. As my own project explores the connections between work and self-identity, I also find it interesting to read about what motivates people to do their jobs and do them well.
When I went on holiday in September I took Brian Grazer’s A Curious Mind with me as my beach-read. Grazer is the Hollywood producer behind films such as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code (I’m sorry about that one), and Kindergarten Cop (I’m definitely not sorry about that). Once I got past all the name-dropping (inevitable but impressive in its frequency), the book started to make me think seriously about curiosity as a source of empowerment, motivation, and even happiness. In a nutshell, Grazer argues that even though we live in an age in which a vast world of knowledge is available to us, curiosity is still an under-acknowledged trait, seen as naive, disruptive or even dangerous. However, when we appreciate it and learn how to use it effectively, curiosity can make our lives better.[i] A bit of a Hollywood-ism, maybe, but I believe that reclaiming this quality and honing it has positive implications for getting the most out of a PhD.
Hang on, I hear you cry. Curiosity is part of our job description, isn’t it? Indeed, A Curious Mind suggests that the life of the ‘professor’ (which I read as anyone in the academic profession) is an essentially curious one.[ii] Thirst for knowledge drives and excites our every waking hour and we are encouraged to be curious in our working environment. To an extent, this is true. However, I would argue that even scholars forget about their curiosity. Sometimes, it feels as if we spend so much time meeting deadlines, writing applications, marking essays, threatening to throw laptops from windows because that chapter just won’t come together, and worrying about the job market, that we miss that thrill of knowledge-seeking which got us into this game in the first place. Furthermore, even in the academy, ‘curious’ is still not a word we use to describe ourselves, although some of the most inspiring people I’ve met are so because they are led by open-ended desire to just know. Is it fear of revealing our own ignorance? I often wonder if there is still something in us that makes us afraid to admit we’re wrong, that we don’t know the answer or that we don’t have it ‘together’. It isn’t surprising in a fiercely competitive economic climate or in what can be an intensely “personal” profession, in which one’s sense of “self” can be almost inseparable from their work. However, it’s ironic that in a scholarly discipline like history, for example, which depends on our ability to critique – essentially, to ask questions – curiosity isn’t exactly celebrated for its own sake. We critique because we have to, in order to earn that degree, win that award, get that job or make ourselves known at that conference.
I’m starting to sound a bit cynical, so let me say that the PhD process is not always like this. People begin research degrees for many reasons, but I’m willing to bet that a significant proportion of PhD students began their projects because they were curious about a subject, or a particular topic. Sometimes, when you’re struggling with self-doubt, or you’ve experienced rejection, or you’re frustrated with your progress, you might feel that those are good reasons to pack the damn thing in. I certainly have. Yet, that initial spark of curiosity – the first thing we forget in times of crisis – can be a good reason to carry on. I was struck by an observation from Hayley Mathers’ fantastic post in September: that moment in your research that snaps you out of ‘autopilot’ and causes you to smile. Curiosity is never far away, and the flicker of possibility and confidence it engenders can actually keep you going even when times are hard. It’s just a case of tuning in.
Developing a ‘curiosity habit’, like meditation or exercise, takes practice and determined daily effort. I’m still working at it (actually, I’m working on the other two things as well, but I digress). But we are only taking time to notice what is already there. Ask a question just for the sake of wanting to know. Savour the thrill of a new idea. Go to a lecture, read a book or watch a programme on something completely different. Notice that idle curiosity in a possible hobby and pursue it. If it feels like your chapter is grinding to a halt, ask yourself what it is you really want to say. Embrace not knowing the answer. Redefine your project as just one opportunity among many to learn something new.
Whilst writing this post I came across a collection of quotes about curiosity on Goodreads – they’re worth a browse if you need a little inspiration. This is my favourite one, though:
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it saved my ass.
– Michael J. Fox
[i] Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman, A Curious Mind: the Secret to a Bigger Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), xiii.
[ii] Grazer and Fishman, 14.
Hannah Hogan is a second year PhD student at the University of York. She also works in a library. Her project explores work, identity and sociability in Yorkshire between 1650-1750 using court records and popular print. When she isn’t amusing herself with homicide depositions or seventeenth-century attempts to write poems in a Yorkshire accent, she can be found on Twitter (@workeinge_girl), blogging very sporadically about early modern ballads at www.balladed.wordpress.com, getting far too into folk music, or wondering where the cake has gone.
(images © Wikimedia Commons and© Flickr )