Keep calm and opt out

“A master has failed more times than a beginner has even tried.”

I read that on Facebook the other day. I can’t remember whose quote it was, but after having received my second rejection in two weeks it spoke to me. That is not to say that this spring has been all bad. I’m not getting rejected on all fronts; after all, I did land a position at the university where I’ve been teaching on short-term contracts, and the work on my opting out book is developing nicely. But it’s funny how we tend to remember the negative bits – the critique and rejections – better than the positive. In part it’s because it just takes so much mental willpower and emotional strength to keep getting up after getting knocked down again and again, and although I feel like screaming at times I keep doing it. Keep getting up. Though I do sometimes ask myself just how dreamy this living my dream business really is.

As I write this I look up longingly at a silly postcard I have thumbtacked to the bulletin board above my desk. It says: “Keep calm and opt out”. It offers me a bit of solace. Not because I’m planning to opt out again. No, but because I started to opt out about seven years ago and I’m still continuously doing so every single day, or at least the card reminds me to. Opting out is not a one off thing. It’s a process. It’s a state of mind. And it provides a feeling of control when everything else seems to be spinning out of control.

The academic world works according to rules that I’m sure frustrates most academics, at least some of the time. And many are very critical of it, but at the same time they shrug and say that’s just the way it is. If you want an academic career you just have to play according to the rules.

But if so many dislike the way things work, then why don’t we do something about it? Maybe the reason is we don’t all dislike it? Maybe we can’t imagine an alternative? Or maybe it’s just that we feel unable to do anything about it? Social theorist and psychoanalyst Paul Hoggett makes an interesting observation. While Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory holds that anyone who is capable of reflecting over his or her situation is also able to change the structures in which he or she exists, Hoggett argues that there are in fact a lot of people who are able to reflect, but that at the same time are painfully aware that there really doesn’t seem to be much they can do about their situations. He calls this state ‘self as reflexive object’. Maybe that’s the problem? Maybe that’s why some, especially early post-docs, opt to leave academia? Maybe it isn’t only the lack of funding or positions, maybe it’s the feeling that you have no control over your career and thus your life, and that there is nothing you nor anyone else can do about it?

I sometimes jokingly say that I’m a tourist in the academic world. Partly it’s because I’ve had this whole other career before I started doing research and I obviously have that to fall back on, or to go back to should I decide to. I feel like I’m standing with one foot in the academic world and one foot in the business world, and I really like it that way. It’s kind of my way of opting out. I mentally refuse to be assimilated (although I am dedicated, one doesn’t exclude the other) and I resolutely hold on to the ability to critically recognize what works and what really doesn’t, in both worlds. And it gives me comfort, because when I feel powerless to change what doesn’t work, and when I keep getting hit by rejection after rejection, it keeps me from losing my sense of self. It allows me to still be me.

I think that’s the main issue here, whether it’s about frustrated academics or mothers of young children or managers who long for a simpler life. The hectic pace, the rigid rules, and the lack of control over our lives makes us feel like we’re losing ourselves, and our sense of dignity.

A while ago I wrote a blog post where I explained how I don’t advocate opting out, because what would the world look like if we all opted out of jobs, of organizations, of society as we know it. While I still stand by my words, I’m also thinking what a narrow view I had of opting out in that moment. Because opting out doesn’t have to mean leaving the work you’re doing. It’s a state of mind. It’s hanging on to who you want to be. It’s living and working in a way you can live with. It’s an ability to prioritize and put things in perspective. And perhaps, most importantly, it’s creating alternative solutions and changing the rules by refusing to adhere to them. Today at least I feel that maybe we all should opt out. Keep calm and opt out. Maybe it isn’t such a silly postcard after all.

2 thoughts on “Keep calm and opt out

  1. Being in a slightly similar situation, i.e, having had a professional life, having been swamped by a feeling of utter insufficientness (both at home and work), having opted out and gone to get my degree, I feel I share your views (and vice versa).

    My current problem is, that while I felt in control as an undergraduate and graduate student, now as a postgraduate all semblance of an “illusion of control” has deserted me.

    While I remain my own master in terms of how much of my time and energy I dedicate, I have very little control of the actual work I do. Here we come back to your initial comments on dealing with rejection.

    The customary process of crafting articles can be analyzed in terms of software project methodologies (my field). Roughly the discourse can be plotted between two extremes: at one end, a project starts by a client describing his/her needs to the contractor after which the contractor goes back to his office, plans the technical solution, plans the project, executes the project and finally goes back to the client with a solution (s)he thinks matches the clients needs as if when the project started (traditional/plan-driven development); at the other extreme a project starts with only a rough outline, after which client and contractor work in constant collaboration, testing, prototyping and developing a solution together (agile development). Now, if you plot the process of writing articles in these terms: it’s a contractor starting a project, without ever having discussed it with the prospective client(s) and the parameters of the project are gleaned only based on “projects the client has lately bought”.

    My point is, very seldom have I been in a situation where the cause&affect relationship between what I do and what I get is so muddled, unclear and opaque.

    Multiply my situation by all those who likewise are expending their energies and giving away of their finite time, and we are, in my opinion at least, confronting a market failure of epic proportions.

    No illusion of control here.



    • Thanks for your comment Pekka. Yup, I hear you. And I can really relate. Putting a lot of time and even more effort down and having no idea how it will be received, whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s going to be accepted or rejected, is frustrating to say the least. My hope personally is that I am on a steep learning curve and that it will get easier, but sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth the effort. At the same time I see so many, both new PhD’s and seasoned scholars, who are frustrated by and question the way things are, but at the same time resign themselves to just accepting it. And that frustrates me. But I guess no one really knows what to do about it, and neither do I…


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