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Christmas was a rather sombre time in our household this year, my step dad died a few days before. It wasn’t a surprise, he had been ill for some time, but it still felt like a huge shock. Unlike the time when my dad died, some 12 years ago now, I didn’t have to deal with the all of the aftermath, my step brother did that and as a consequence, I was left with time to think and reflect. The death of someone, particularly as we get older, reminds us of our own mortality. Phrases such as ‘time marches on’ simply remind us of the inevitable fact that our time is finite, unlike time itself, I’m not sure Stephen Hawking would agree with this (see below). The hard part about someone dying is that they cannot give you any more of their time, just as you cannot give them any of yours. It is this use of time that I want to reflect on using an eclectic mix of what may seem random ideas.
Coincidentally, I was given a book at Christmas authored by Stephen Hawking. Most of you will be aware that he wrote A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Hawking, 1995) and his latest book Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Hawking 2018) revisits some of the ideas. I confess, I do not really understand some of the things he discusses although I do get the general idea. While reading, I started to think about how I would gain a better understanding of some of his key concepts. I decided two things were needed, time and effort. So, the question for me was, simply this, do I want to spend time and effort in gaining this understanding? On reflection, it became rapidly apparent that to understand quantum physics, for example, I would need to start with some basics around mathematics and physics. I think, given enough time and effort, I would be able to crack it. But I must acknowledge that given other priorities, I simply do not have enough time to embark on this endeavour. Consequently, I have to read, somewhat uncritically, Stephen’s ideas and accept them on face value. This is not something that sits comfortably with me because I have always been a ‘I get it, but… person’. I still want to know what was before the ‘big bang’, although Hawking (2018) says this is a pointless question.
Some time ago a colleague complimented another colleague’s writing. It cannot be coincidence that the author of the eloquent piece has over many years, spent an inordinate amount of time reading academic literature. So, time and effort spent doing something seems to produce rewards.
Whilst talking to another colleague, I described how I was renovating a house, much of the work I was doing myself. How did I know how to do all of this, he asked? On reflection, it is through experience which, equates to time and effort put into finding out how to do things and then doing them. That’s not to say that I can plumb a bathroom as quickly as a plumber or do the tiling in the same time as a professional tiler, or lay a floor as quick as someone that does it every day. I have to spend more time thinking about what I want to do and thinking about how I’m going to do it. I have to read and reread the instructions and research how to do certain things. The more I practice, the better I get, the less effort required and perhaps the less time needed. My dad always told me that a half a job is a double job, in other words, do it properly in the first place. The example of my colleague being able to write eloquently, suggests that time spent doing something might also produce better results as well as saving time and effort in the long run.
And so, I reflect on my time, which is finite, and marches on. My time is valuable, just as your time is valuable. I need to use my time wisely, so too should you. Giving people my time requires effort but as recent experience has demonstrated those that are close will not always be around to share time. Time and effort are required to achieve our goals, the more time we spend on something, accompanied by the requisite effort, the more likely we are to achieve what we want. Some things will take more time and effort but there is little that cannot be achieved. ‘Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done’ (Hawking, 2018: 22).
Hawking, S. (1995) A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, London: Bantam Books.
Hawking, S. (2018) Brief Answers to the Big Questions, London: John Murray.
I’m afraid to say that this week’s entry lacks both criminological insight and positivity but in the absence of a more engaging and topical issue to debate I offer a reflective piece on staying motivated in a de-motivating environment.
Working in academia can be challenging, it’s certainly not a place to work if you have no passion for learning and engaging in healthy debate but of late I’ve found myself asking why I bother. We all know people who hate their jobs, who live for that Friday night escape and the freedom that a weekend affords and I’m thankful for the fact that I don’t feel that way…or I haven’t until recently. I’ve never hated Monday’s, possibly because academia doesn’t work on a 9 – 5, Monday to Friday basis but still, what I do has not felt like a chore until now. This term, as classroom engagement and attendance has dropped so too has my motivation and with each new pressure, training course, despondent student, stressed colleague and pointless meeting I’ve found myself wondering why I continue to hit my head against a brick wall. The future currently facing me and my colleagues is not one full of hope and prosperity but rather increased classroom time, even less hours in a day, increased pressure from those who have no understanding of what we actually do, more paperwork, more blame when things don’t work and even less time with those we love. This isn’t what any of us signed up for and it certainly isn’t enhancing our careers. So, what are my options and how do I stay motivated in this de-motivating environment?
I suppose the first thing to consider is whether or not I want to stay in this environment, I could simply walk away and do something else but deep down I know that my passion lies in this type of work so this isn’t a feasible option. I could change university but is the grass really greener on the other side? We are all acutely aware of the difficulties facing the sector and there is no shortage of stories in the news about campus closures and staff redundancies, not to mention the increasingly competitive nature of the job that demands more and more of us as researchers and income generators, so maybe the challenges we face pale in comparison to our colleagues’ experiences elsewhere. In eliminating these options I’m forced to look inward for organisational support mechanisms which take the form of courses such as ‘SMART working’, ‘Personal Effectiveness’ and ‘thriving in a changing environment’. However, while these options appear on the surface to be supportive they focus on us changing as individuals without any recognition of institutional pressures that we have no control over, such as staffing or resources. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against self-help approaches but in reality, it doesn’t matter how SMART or effective I am as a worker, there are only so many hours in a day and only so much I, or my colleagues can do without the very real danger of burnout. As such I’m left with only one, rather sad option and that is to embrace my selfish side and withdraw from anything which is not a contractual necessity. In practice this means the students will no longer get the above and beyond support they have come to expect, the university will no longer get my enthusiasm for helping to shape future policy and practice, and my colleagues will lose an active member of the team. In theory, I shouldn’t care about the impact that this might have on others, but in reality it pains me to think that this might be the only way to survive in the de-motivating environment.