By Daniel Adamson |

There is an aphorism, of unknown origin, which states:

‘The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg.’

The premise of this adage is straightforward enough. Two individuals can react in very different ways when exposed to identical challenging conditions.

Whether rushing to submit work by a given deadline, receiving critical feedback, or applying for jobs, there is a broad scope for PhD students to become under pressure.

Although it is unlikely for such situations to be avoided altogether over the course of the PhD experience, it is possible to choose how we react to such circumstances. We can either let pressure reduce us to indeterminant sludge, or we can use it to develop a more resilient outer shell. In other words, we can choose to be the egg or the potato.

Shifting the mindset

This means converting stressful circumstances from demoralising to constructive experiences. How is it possible? By reframing the perspective with which we approach them.

Although somewhat twee, this diagram illustrates how gaining value from challenging situations requires us to step outside of the ‘comfort zone’. Dealing with pressure effectively, in any form, requires a certain degree of discomfort. In order to progress to the central ‘learning zone’, PhD students must first pass through the ‘fear zone’. If you are to accrue the armoury with which to battle pressure in the future, you must first endure the pointed arrows of fear, embarrassment and self-doubt which intuitively characterise most human reactions to stress.

Self awareness is also an important step towards the ‘growth zone’. In fact the clinical psychologist Meg Jay has commented:

‘Recognise that your struggle is valid, no matter what you’re struggling with. Don’t be ashamed of what makes you stressed. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, I wasn’t in a war…’ They have to learn what the most common adversities are and see those as being legitimate chronic stressors.”’.[1]

Maintaining a sense of perspective is also crucial. Tackling pressure is a process, not an event. Building resilience to stressful situations occurs in a piecemeal fashion, and each individual experience will ultimately contribute to a greater whole.

Tackling pressure in practice: case studies

When placed in (metaphorical) hot water, being the egg rather than the potato can be easier said than done. How, then, might a constructive mindset and resilient approach manifest itself in reality? Let us consider possible reactions to a handful of scenarios:

  • Receiving critical feedback on submitted work

Potato interpretation: a personal attack, and confirmation of your self-doubts.

Egg interpretation: an opportunity to improve your work, and a chance to embrace new perspectives on it.

  • Rejection from a job application

Potato interpretation: validation of personal unsuitability for employment, and determent from applying for similar positions in future.

Egg interpretation: proof of positive self-driven action (regardless of outcome), and a useful learning experience that can help to inform approaches to future applications.

  • Imminent deadline for submission of work

Potato interpretation: a time for panic, and lack of faith that the task could possibly be completed in time.

Egg interpretation: a challenge that will allow for the refinement of concise writing, and an opportunity to discover which material is truly worth prioritising in the finished product.

When faced with identical circumstances, the key difference between the potato and the egg is the lens through which stressful situations are viewed. There is a choice between destruction and construction. Either we can allow pressure to force us back into the stasis of the ‘comfort zone’, or we can use disappointment to build resilience and drive forwards towards the more positive zones of ‘learning’ and ‘growth’.


So, the next time you find yourself under pressure, ask: am I an egg or a potato?


Daniel Adamson is a first-year PhD student in the History Department of Durham University. His PhD project considers educational portrayals of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust (Twitter: @DEAdamson9).



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