Monday, May 14, 2012

Academia Broke my Optimism Bias

Here's a TED talk for you. It talks about the optimism bias and whether or not we should keep it. It has funny bits and a happy ending. Go watch it.

The last few years have been fairly unpleasant in many regards. Being blown off by my committee, betrayed by my chair, and realizing I had no job prospects in academia were not the stuff of happy thoughts. The result was that my optimism bias broke. Shattered into little pieces, like a grenade in a barrel of oatmeal. That's a line from Foghorn Leghorn but I like the image and cartoon quotes are always useful for academia.

The side effect has been that many days I don't feel like I can do anything. This is what the researchers call a pessimism bias. It's really bad for you. When you have an optimism bias, you attribute all the good outcomes to your awesome skills and all the bad stuff to external forces. With a pessimism bias, you attribute all the bad stuff to your inabilities and all the good stuff to dumb luck and reality will catch up with you next time. This pessimism bias is not a good way to live. But that's the result of all my years in academia. I read job descriptions and decide that there's no way I could ever get or do a particular job, even though I could do everything in the "Job Requirements" section. I'm working on this but it's been difficult.

I'm feeling better these days. Not because of graduating or leaving, I still haven't found a next job. I'll probably move back in with my folks when my lease is up at the end of this month. That's not really uplifting, quite frankly.

No, I'm attributing my improved mood to avoiding revising my diss, a great deal of wine I'd rather drink than move, and the playlist on my ipod. Mostly the playlist I think, though the wine does help. Seriously, I loaded my ipod with all the cheery, triumphant songs I could find. Recovery-from-breakup songs are also a good choice. If your optimism bias breaks, music is a good replacement. It can greatly improve your mood and makes you think that you too can find a nonacademic job that pays enough to cover your student loans and still let you eat something other than ramen noodles. It's like an optimism prosthetic.

Unfortunately I have not yet decided on what I want to be, on the off-chance I grow up someday. I'm currently applying to adjuncts visiting lecturer positions. I like these jobs, not because I think they'll lead to a TT job, but because they give me 9 months of adventure somewhere else in the country and of time to figure out what I'm going to do next - all without commitment. Yes, I'm embracing the commitmentphobe-ness of nonacademic jobs. If you don't like the first one, finish out the contract and find another one. Awesome.

I still want to be a writer. I know this is not a job one normally supports oneself on. However, that's what I want to do. When people ask me what I would do if money were no object, I say I'd like to write fiction. Sci-fi, fantasy, or dystopic fiction. That's what I read and that's what I'd like to write. Alas, a near-decade of academic writing does not lend itself well to creative fiction - creative nonfiction maybe, but I don't feel like writing journal articles at the moment.

So, I'm planning to do a bit of creative writing and maybe finding a reading buddy to keep me honest. And I'll keep looking for other jobs to support my wine or pez habits. Maybe I'll be a barista or a sommelier or an incredibly nerdy chef…or a number-crunching cubicle monkey. Who knows! Knowing I could do just about anything doesn't really help in limiting the nonacademic job options. And I don't really care what I do to make money. I want to write. The rest is just paying bills.

To those out there hitting a rough patch with your transition, I wish you good luck, good hope, good booze, and cheerful drinking buddies. And listen to cheerful, happy music. Listen to the uplifting, triumphant stuff at the end of big blockbuster movies where the hero/ine gets what they need. You'll get to your next triumph and the next adventure soon!

1 comment:

Currer Bell said...

Yes, I feel like my Optimism Bias broke...along with my General Faith in the Way the World Works bias. Maybe they're the same things.

I'm totally in that mentally/emotionally rough patch of the career transition experience with you. I too haven't found out what I want to do with my life (well, be a professor, but that isn't sustainable) and I feel as though I have a little choice since I NEED a job and don't have the luxury of doing another degree or something.

As soon as my kidney infection clears up, I plan to take you up on the good booze portion of the Optimism Bias Recovery Project :)