Welcome back to Ought Experiment! This week’s question is from a grad student looking for advice on the habits that make one a better philosopher. After googling “how to be a better philosopher”, I’m prepared to fake my way through a half-decent answer:
I’m curious about what habits philosophers have cultivated that are specifically geared at being a better philosopher. For instance, do many in the philosophy profession strive to read a certain number of hours a day, do they exercise in order to help strengthen their ability to focus, do they otherwise hone their ability to focus, do they force themselves to read in sub disciplines they have no interest in just in case there’s something relevant going on there, and so on. I’m about to finish a Master’s and will be moving on to a PhD soon. I’ve figured out certain habits that help me do philosophy better (simple things, like reading the hardest article first, or forcing myself to make formal arguments of others’ positions), but it’d be great to hear from other people.
One day in grad school, I set a weekly goal to read three research-related articles, five articles in my subfield not directly on my topic, three important-seeming articles from recent journals that I guessed other people would be discussing in the coming months, one article from a different subfield for breadth, and at least one article chosen just for the pleasure of learning something interesting. This was in addition to my proposed Embarrassing Gaps reading group, which would cover one important book a week in order to keep us from being discovered and drummed out of the profession for our stunning and (entirely unique) ignorance.
It went about as well as joining a gym on January 1st.
And that’s probably a good thing. Trying to get ‘caught up’ on the literature is one of those impossible goals that will consume your time but still leave you feeling like a failure anyway. That’s a pretty bad investment. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the job is far too hectic and stressful for lofty aspirations about being the ideal philosopher. The best habits are those that help you bring order to chaos, and keep you churning out new work despite all the challenges and competing incentives. Academia is like showing up late to a marathon because you had to run a few errands first. Oh, and a few miles in, you remember that you signed up for a second marathon heading in the exact opposite direction. So instead of making yourself perfect, make the academic work week survivable and fun. Because somehow you have to keep doing this, week after week, without burning out.
So, which habits have philosophers cultivated to achieve that goal? I can’t tell you what “many in the profession do,” because Justin keeps my vat hidden away from the general population. But I can certainly tell you which habits have worked for me. And hopefully others will add to the list in the comments below.
A quick caveat: there’s two ways to interpret “becoming a better philosopher”: doing this job well, in the sense of doing what it takes to make it over the long haul, and doing this job well, in the sense of being an exemplar with respect to professional standards and academic virtues. I’ve gone the former route, because I think that kind of advice is more immediately relevant to you given your career stage. But the latter would make for a pretty important and interesting list, too. Maybe next week.
- Manage the mental
By far, the biggest barrier to productivity I’ve faced is myself. If I’m stuck on a tricky sentence, I’m apparently inclined to try and figure out the proper phrasing by goofing off on Facebook for 15 minutes. If I’m overwhelmed by a daunting task, I frequently allow myself to believe that “I’ll start it tomorrow” won’t be a thing I say tomorrow as well. And unfortunately, distraction and approach-avoidance are just the tip of my iceberg. There are other things my brain does that aren’t altogether compatible with being a self-caring, productive individual. A career in philosophy is hard enough already without your help. So first: work on your self-sabotaging habits. Find things that improve your mood or put you in a state to work, and owe yourself those things. Turn big, daunting tasks into small, doable tasks. Do whatever it takes to get yourself out of the way of your work.
- Schedule your week
When you’re living the career minute to minute, it’s easy to let new developments commandeer your schedule. Oh, there’s a colleague in the hallway I want to chat with. Oh, a student just asked for an appointment. Oh, someone needs me to do a quick favor. Oh, I should probably answer that email. Oh, there’s an interesting debate on the internet that won’t be solved unless I chime in. Oh, there’s a neat event in 20 minutes. It’s amazing how many of my days used to simply… evaporate. I’d have a vague plan for how I wanted to spend my day, but somehow I never really spent it that way. Now I try to plot out my week every Sunday. When am I going to write? When am I going to prep? When am I going to meet? When am I going to respond to things? How many new things can I afford to agree to? No more fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants scheduling, because I never make progress that way. I only tread water.
- Carve out sacred writing time
This one is kind of deceptive. If you only write during pristinely preserved blocks of time, you won’t get everything done, because there just aren’t enough big blocks of time. You have to learn how to use a spare 10 minutes here and there to add a single paragraph to your paper, rather than waiting for That Perfect Weekend In June when you can serenely write the whole thing while unicorns frolic on rainbows outside your cottage window. That said, you should try to set aside at least one block of time each day that you refuse to surrender to others or to distraction. For me, it’s the few hours immediately after I wake up. Writing in the morning helps me set the tone for the day, and it’s also more realistic than expecting myself to have oodles of leftover energy when I come home in the evenings. Maybe you’re different. Maybe you have childcare obligations or other non-negotiables. Maybe your block can only be an hour, and you have to rely on stolen moments for most of your progress. The important thing is to find at least some time in the day that works for you, and to guard it as dearly as you can.
- Say no to all the things!
Something that shocked me about academia is that the amount of work exceeds the available number of hours. I used to rail against this. “How can a job have impossible expectations,” I’d yell at no one in particular. “You can’t expect things that you can’t expect! That’s irrational!” Well, that’s the job, and you have to reconcile yourself to it. Grads often think themselves busier than they actually are, but even so, you’re going to be late on things. Entire tasks might fall through the cracks, forgotten. And there are projects you’d dearly love to spend your time on that prior commitments rule out. So learn two of the most important words a grad can learn: Opportunity Cost. Everything you agree to means less writing time. Sure, that September deadline might seem so far away that agreeing to it is practically free, but come August, it’ll hurt. I once promised my advisor that a summer teaching gig would come out of my free time, not my writing time, and so wouldn’t distract me from my dissertation. He gave me the kind of flat look that I now practice in the mirror. Everything has an opportunity cost. Even good opportunities have an opportunity cost – that’s how they get you! So for each possible use of time x, you have to ask yourself if x is better for your career than doing your own research. And then hold yourself to the answer. Unless your friend asks you to write a couple thousand words for his blog every two weeks. I mean, definitely do that one.
- Talk to other philosophers
One skill that we often preach to graduate students is self-reliance. And I see why: you have to learn how to be self-directing and self-motivating, because academics don’t work 9-5, our deadlines are often nebulous and distant, we don’t receive our projects from our bosses, and we also don’t really have bosses. That said, self-reliance is total hooey. I would never make quality progress on my research if I couldn’t share it with colleagues; sometimes all it takes to unlock a creative leap is a single, pointed question. I often learn more from a reading group than I learn from reading a text on my own. (And sometimes I wouldn’t have even known the text existed had a colleague not mentioned it to me.) And I certainly wouldn’t have gotten through grad school, the market, and my early years on the tenure track if I didn’t have people who understood my specific challenges and were willing to listen. Even though my job now includes teaching graduate students how to do this job, I still routinely seek guidance from other academics. Talk to other philosophers to make progress. Talk to other philosophers to cope. Talk to other philosophers to have fun. Do this together.
- Find ways to recharge
This is a theme I touch on a lot in my columns – in fact, I already pretty much covered it in Habit #1 above – but you absolutely have to find ways to recharge. Maybe that means vacations or road trips. Maybe that means you follow Sacred Writing Time with Sacred Netflix Time. Maybe it means a coffee nap in the middle of the day. Maybe you run, or do yoga, or hike with your dog, or try to hike with your predictably intransigent cat and fail and really have no one to blame but yourself. The point is, you can’t sustain this pace indefinitely. Heck, a lot of us can’t even sustain this pace for an entire day. You can’t work all the time, and you shouldn’t believe the lie that the best philosophers do work all the time. And it’s not just about burnout, either. There’s a life outside of philosophy, and you owe yourself that, too. Don’t see it as an either/or – a happy, rested philosopher who loves doing philosophy will probably do better work than the philosopher stubbornly chained to their laptop because The Profession demands a sacrifice. If you’re stuck on a tricky sentence, go lay in the grass for twenty minutes and look up at the clouds. In fact, do that anyway. Unless it’s snowing. Or heck, maybe even if it’s snowing.
- Follow your curiosity
One of the best ways to stay productive is to choose projects you actually care about. That goes for paper topics, dissertations, research niches, teaching assignments, service obligations, reading groups, colleagues, and the rest. For all our talk of how hard and stressful the job can be, it can also be, well, tremendously fun. You can’t fully control how you spend your time, and you probably need a certain amount of power and privilege to control it even halfway, but you can at least choose the topic or topics that will occupy you. This is an old insight, but a job feels less like work if you love it. Don’t pick a topic just because you think it will impress your advisor. Don’t pick an area just because it has the most posts on PhilJobs. Don’t squander your creative energy on work that you didn’t get into philosophy to do. For me, some of the best moments are when I get a new idea so cool that there’s nothing I’d rather do than chase it. And part of why I love this job is that I’d paid to do precisely that. Above all, do this job for yourself. Because it’s far too easy to slowly slide into doing this job for others.
Okay, that’s my seven. What did I miss, folks? What works for you?
— Louie Generis