I've had plenty of time to reflect these last few weeks on the past couple of years and the whirlwind that has ensued. I remember focusing on my mindset during the PhD and really looking at how I was going to handle the overwhelm as well as handle the workload that was coming down the pipeline. I can now look back and really look at the journey I went on. It wasn't always easy, it was challenging, in fact a daily challenge but I was excited about that challenge. I was invigorated, inspired and I embraced it whole-heartedly. I adopted what is known as a growth mindset and ran with it for the PhD. I loved it. It gave such freedom and I watched documentaries and inspiring talks daily to keep myself focused. I read books like Carol Dweck's Growth Mindset along with many others. I watched a documentary on Ruth Gruber - the youngest person to ever receive a PhD and her phrase 'done is better than perfect' in the documentary 'Ahead of time' she mentioned that as the best advice for anyone wanting to pursue a PhD. She was absolutely correct in that.
I also meditated daily and I know what you are thinking now - it's all fluff but if you think of it like a brain break then it really was. I also had a great quiet morning every morning. I made a lovely breakfast and watched the view of the ocean. I cycled into the PhD room daily so I got exercise. I arrived into the PhD room which was always empty at the early hour I arrived and settled into my desk for the day looking up at the inspiring quotes and posters on my desk to remind me that I could do it. These were both supportive and uplifting and I watched at least one inspirational video daily to start my day before getting started on both learning C# and coding a 3D gesture-based game that I was completely new ground for me. Of course there were days that I was frustrated spending hours getting something to work. I did design-based research using agile software processes which were focused on user-centred design with a turnaround time of two weeks. It was challenging being a one-person team. It was really a case of taking a step back and thinking - I don't have it YET and that's where the growth mindset comes to the fore. YET is the keyword there. It can almost cultivate a patience with yourself because you haven't gotten it YET, which is a key quality in accomplishing almost anything. Everything is done in stages, everything is done little by little, task by task, goal by goal in order to achieve what you have set out to do.
I was in a PhD room full of inspiring people wanting to pursue their goals in various doctorates including topics like the Mexican Narcocorrido as well as other heart-wrenching topics like finding strategies that help survivors of sexual assault and of course, those in the hard sciences too like pure mathematics. It was an eclectic mix of everyone and we'd go to the lunch room which was part of the PhD room daily and have discussions regarding human rights with people studying doctorates in law as well as Irish history or even English literature. It was a mix of people that I will forever be glad that I met.
This experience challenged my primitive way of thinking. By primitive I mean, I didn't put an emphasis in the language I was using and the meaning associated with particular words that would change the way someone viewed a particular topic. This also filtered its way into the PhD during the 'write up phase' as well. Each and every word of that book was selected carefully so it could be read with clarity and understanding and anyone could pick it up to understand what the study accomplished. This, of course, entailed letting go of 100s or pages of other work that I could have added but in order for the conciseness and clarity to be achieved I had to let go. It would have been a two volume edition of the PhD but I was limited to a word count of 100,000 and that meant cutting out and letting go of a lot of work over the years.
Letting go was also where mindset played an important role and I am not saying that I maintained the same mindset 100% of the time - I didn't but I know that I did my best. I am human after all. Having this mindset allowed me to let go and I did focus on developing this mental muscle and look at also maintaining it. I realised one thing that I did not adopt this last year and that was my mental agility. I had stopped my practice in 2018 and it is a practice. Just like any other muscle, it's a case of exercising this muscle to strengthen it and in times of true hardship being able to use it and focus on its resilience. Look at the mind as a transient thing and getting perspective in terms of life happening in waves. It is so easy for our minds to think that something will never end.
When we are in a cycle of something happening outside of our control we can get caught up in thinking that it will never end. We want the pain and suffering to stop. This can happen easily when something happens and you fall into what I like to call 'child mode' when you want comfort and safety but the world isn't providing that for you. You need to find comfort and safety yourself. If you want peace, then practice being peaceful. If you want joy, be joyous. It is that simple. Of course the mind can play tricks on us and it can be difficult to overcome a chemical from our primitive 1,000,000 year old brain telling us that we are in danger. It is the neuroscience that will kick in but we are also in control of certain things that enable other chemicals - we can encourage the biofeedback to send other chemicals to counteract the stress hormone cortisol firing.
These chemicals can be overwhelming and it is a case of finding what is right to comfort and support yourself and also calm the toxins in your brain. You can control them by relaxing your brain. A relaxed brain is a more creative brain. Your brain will be inspired, think better, create more and enjoy life more. Everyone wants that (I think!). During the PhD to maintain this, I watched films that were inspiring like 'The Great Dictator' that I believe is the best speech about humanity that anyone has given in the 20th century and is still true to this day. I've linked a video below. I had Charlie Chaplin quotes hung up on my desk to remind myself that I can love myself with his 80th birthday speech 'as I began to love myself'.
These books focused on cultivating a mindset that would give you strategies for protecting your boundaries by focusing on your thought processes and becoming aware of them. This was, of course, through meditation and simply focusing on the present moment. I had been interested and practicing this for years. I have been to courses regarding this and looked at the benefits that others have attained from doing various forms be it, going for a run or exercising - as long as you are focused on the present moment I would call that a meditative experience. Going for a run can be invigorating and make you feel alive - sport can be analogous to life in that you need to exercise the muscles for them to get stronger, every muscle must experience pain to grow. Everyone goes through growing pains - that's why they are called growing - pains.
Also perhaps cultivating a mindset of looking at life as a series of tests that life shows you and they will keep appearing until you have learnt that lesson. Finding the lesson in the chaos and figuring out what can be learnt from this. What is this interaction with this person trying to teach me? Why am I uncomfortable about this interaction and then having the ability to still your mind and reflect on this can lead to a clarity and objectivity that can allow you to detach from outcomes and enjoy the process. Allowing for this detachment and keeping in mind the phrase 'I won't remember this when I am 80' is always good, although bearing mind that you can also undermine your feelings and situation by repeating this phrase - it is more to do with holding yourself in a place of compassion towards the human experience and understanding that it is all too fleeting. Time will inevitably, as everyone says, fly by without you knowing. It is cherishing the good and realising the lessons from the bad and looking at the entire thing with beauty. The detachment from the outcome can be freeing and also bring a plethora of benefits. You will find that you will work harder as you focus on the task at hand more, you may even enjoy life more as you appreciate where you are right now enjoying the process along the way. You might even start dancing with life when you adopt the process-based mindset and let go of the outcome. Life is a process with only one destination that we are all headed to so you might as well enjoy it along the way!
Life is exciting, nerve-wrecking, thrilling, enthralling, relaxing, stupefyingly beautiful and looking at your body as an instrument that will help guide you along this wild-ride can also cultivate a mindset of compassion towards what the body can do. It can walk - a privilege denied to many, it can breathe without help - a privilege, as we know now especially, is to be cherished at the best of times and the worst of times, it can sustain injury after injury and recover. What an amazing thing the human body can do and recover from incredible injuries only with some rest and recuperation. It will even tell you when it needs rest and recuperation. It will be exhausted and when you find yourself needing to sleep after work then maybe work is draining your energy and it is time to find a place that invigorates you to work there.
You can get excited about new challenges OR it is a case of adapting to the existing environment and finding your attitude towards it. Reinvigorating yourself by supporting yourself and seeing that YOU can choose your perception towards it. It is having the strength and courage to be vulnerable and face your weaknesses and say... look, I have them, they make up me, that's fine, this is me! I am improving them by learning how I interact with the world around me. It is focusing on what can be done and focusing on the main thing that started this blog post which is 'done is better than perfect' in order to keep motivated and keep going.
As Charlie Chaplin says in his speech below 'You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful'. Life has taught me a lesson since 2018, I stopped exercising my mental muscle - I know now that this was the lesson life was reminding me and teaching me to embrace it all. It's a great adventure after all and a reminder of the brief time we have on this wonderful place called home. Everything is part of our story and we can write our own story by choosing our own direction. Life is also not that serious and a laugh a day is a necessity to get through any bad situation. Frankl stated in 'man's search for meaning' - see post below - https://www.alisonmcnamara.com/my-blog/comparison-thief and also related - https://www.alisonmcnamara.com/my-blog/comedy-and-computer-games-as-a-way-of-coping - that laughter can be a lifeline to survival and when things can challenging - we can use these examples as a way to laugh at the absurdity of life - “Humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”
One more thing, if you find yourself procrastinating - it's because you feel bad doing what you are going to do so you develop strategies of distraction or avoidance towards doing these things. Once you figure out that then you can readjust your feelings to point them in the right direction. What thoughts are you having that is making you procrastinate? Can you do things like go for a cycle/run/swim/walk and then do 5 minutes and tell yourself that you'll only open the book and see what CAN be done. This is a simple strategy for feeling good and then associating those feelings with the thing that you are procrastinating doing. It's a psychological tip I learnt through the PhD - some of these I obviously forget from time to time but I try and practice as often as I can.
Always important to laugh at least once a day - here are some of my favourites.
Mindset: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential - Dr. Carol Dweck
Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life - Dr. John. B. Arden
The Happiness Advantage - Dr. Shawn Achor
Flow - Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The seven habits of highly effective people - Stephen Covey
The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance-What Women Should Know - Claire Shipman and Katty Kay
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance - Angela Duckworth
Some funnier related reads:
How to Be Human: The Manual - Ruby Wax