Last week I listened to Kate Harris, CEO of Good Environmental Choice Australia, present on courageous leadership to a group of early career academics. She shared this image (from startwithwhy) and asked people to think about why they do the work they do:
Kate made herself vulnerable and shared her purpose, motivation and inspiration. Her grandfather’s dying words to her were: Make peace in this world. And she dedicates her life to this goal. Her words inspired me to think about why I wanted to start this blog, and why I value slow academia.
Earlier in the day, I bumped into two colleagues – one whose partner recently died, and one who is in the early stages of cancer treatment. Both were at work, and working through shock and grief. Work can be distracting and colleagues can be nourishing … but something more important is going on for these colleagues. This, I realised, is why I consider slow academia crucial.
I recently read Being Mortal, a surgeon’s account of how medicine struggles to cope with dying, and it is a book that has made me think more than any other this year. Gawande writes about the way in which the perspectives and priorities of those close to the end of their lives changes:
When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever … And you are willing to delay gratification—to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future … When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid—achievement, creativity, and other attributes of “self-actualization.” But as your horizons contract—when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.
Two experiences in particular during my formative years as a PhD candidate and early career academic shifted my focus.
I have already mentioned the birth of my daughter ten years ago. What I didn’t mention, and what sometimes seems the most defining aspect of the last decade, was what happened. As a result of placental abruption during birth, and after repeated life-threatening seizures as a baby and toddler, my daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy. We live with the consequences of her illness daily.
I also live with a chronic pain condition, following complications during surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. I now have a neurostimulator implanted in my abdomen, which runs an electric current alongside the damaged nerve and replaces pain with tingling. I have it on 24/7 and my once constant and immobilising pain – which severely negatively impacted everyday living – is now manageable.
These experiences are why I advocate for slow academia. When I finished my PhD, and when I became an academic, other things already came first. Work matters – it has to matter because sometimes it takes me away from what matters more.
A recent Twitter exchange illustrated this:
— Dr Deborah Netolicky (@debsnet) November 22, 2016
‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’ is among the top five regrets of the dying. The future is finite and uncertain. My focus is the here and now, everyday pleasures and the people closest to me.