Uncertainty is stressful. Things are always uncertain. We have limited control over the future. My approach to supporting academics focuses on identifying the things you can control and being flexible enough to change track if necessary.
The most important component of this approach is trust. Trust that you have the capacity to find a way forward. Trust that things will turn out alright in the end. Trust that you will survive and that you can thrive. That last bit is important because it isn’t enough to just survive, even if sometimes that’s all you can do for a while. Thriving is important. Sailing seems like a good metaphor.
With minimal skill, you can figure out how to keep your boat from capsizing. Maybe you aren’t moving very fast or in the direction you want to, but you aren’t drowning either. That’s surviving.
With a bit of ingenuity (or minimal instruction), you can figure out how to use the sail to move your boat in the direction of the wind. You don’t have a lot of control over your direction or your speed, but you are harnessing the power of the wind and you are moving. Your direction is determined by external forces. You are acting to make the best of those forces but it is unlikely that you really feel in control. You’re still not capsizing. And maybe you are moving a bit faster. You could just decide that this is where you want to go and it might feel like sailing. But really, the wind is in control. Not you. This is also surviving.
A skilled and experienced sailor has a lot more control over direction and speed. She may be able to manipulate multiple sails for even finer grained control. She is still influenced by the external force of the wind. There are directions that are extremely difficult or impossible to navigate. When the wind stops, there will be no motion unless there is an alternative means of locomotion (like a motor or oars). However, the range of possibilities is much greater than for the novice. Furthermore, the skilled sailor will be able to prevent capsizing even in very stormy seas (and will have more strategies for righting the boat if she does capsize).
This is thriving. You are not just staying afloat and moving in whatever direction external forces push you. You are setting your own direction and steering a course, mindful of the effect of the external forces. There are times when it makes sense to go with the wind for a while. There are times when you have to recalculate your course. But you are in control of where you are trying to get to and you are doing more than preventing yourself from capsizing (even if sometimes, the storm is pretty bad and that is rightly your focus).
It’s not all unicorns and rainbows
The thing I like about that metaphor is that is makes it clear that thriving is hard. It takes practice.
It also takes into account the fact that you don’t have control of all the factors. You can’t just ignore the institutional, cultural, or political context in which you find yourself any more than a sailor can ignore the weather. You need strategies for thriving in that context, or for getting out of that context into something more conducive to your best work.
Even the best sailors will make judgements about when to do the minimum required to keep from capsizing, when to go with the wind for a while, and when to use all of their skills and strength to set a more difficult course. A skilled sailor who decides to sail with the wind for a while has a plan for how to adjust her course later. She has a vision of where she wants to go. She recognizes that the best way to get there may not be direct.
Take a deep breath. The water may be pretty choppy right now. You can do this.
A version of this post was first published July 1, 2016 as a newsletter for members of the Academic Writing Studio.