motivation amidst uncertainty

(Thank you, Firefox, for claiming “amidst” was misspelled and leaving me uncertain about my spelling skills.)

As an assistant professor, I’m constantly living with uncertainty.

I know I’ll learn something from each lecture I give, but I don’t know what that will be until I give it.

I don’t know what reviewers will be assigned to each manuscript I submit for peer review and eventual publication. I write each paper to the best of my ability and hope the reviewers will be impartial and focus on scientific content, but each reviewer is human, as is the editor. And there is always the chance of outright rejection.

I work and write and work and write some more to create grant proposals, but I don’t know whether I’ll get funded, whether that work was–in some respects–for naught.

And, of course, there is the inherent uncertainty within research itself. You hear about the 95% confidence level or p<0.05 and other metrics. These are ways to quantify how certain (and, conversely, how uncertain) we are about our results.

Living with uncertainty is hard. Retaining motivation can be even harder.

Then I remember I learn something every time. So I apply what I've learned. I refine my lectures. I change my approach to the material. I gain a broader perspective on the diverse learning styles and backgrounds of students in my courses. I become a better advisor and mentor. I write better papers. I become a better evaluator of others' work. Eventually (hopefully) (someday) I'll land a grant.

Applying these lessons to writing is difficult. There's so much uncertainty in writing (does this idea work? can I finish this book? will anyone like it? will revisions matter? even if my CPs/betas love this book, what if no agent does? what if it gets me an agent but that agent can't sell it? what if the book lands a deal but doesn't get enough sales?). I'm burned out at the end of every day–many of which extend beyond 10 hours–which makes finding the motivation to keep working, even on something I enjoy, even on something as different from STEM academia as creative writing can be, a challenge.

Yet, in both academia and writing, I still find things I love. I discover and join invaluable communities. Sure, there's much uncertainty, but there's also much to gain.

I just have to focus on the rewards rather than the risks.


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