Lessons Learned from Sport: How Not to Suck in Graduate School
The influence of sport is pervasive in society. For example, every news or political chat show is always peppered with sports references. There are always references to a home run, Hail Mary, horse race, prevent defence, red card, or slam dunk. I am a sports fan, but find this use of language tiresome. Beyond the superficial contributions to language and simplistic cultural touchstones, there are some positive and constructive lessons to be learned from sport and applied to the academic world.
Life is not fair. I am always surprised and envious of people who believe that life is or should be fair. In my experience, it is not. Although there are elements of a meritocracy in both sport and academia, true meritocracy is an illusion. I know five athletes who played professional sports: two in the NFL, one in the NBA, one who played AA baseball, and one who played pro hockey in Germany. But the best athlete I ever have been around had his athletic career ended with multiple concussions in high school. Other amazing athletes I know personally had careers ended through injury, sexual abuse by coach, dropped out of sports to work to support his family, automobile accident, drug and alcohol addiction, and a farming accident. They were better athletes than those who had tangible success. No matter how awesome you are and how hard you work, being derailed is common and rarely fair.
Differentiating injury from pain. Every athlete faces physical pain. A successful athlete will power through. But if the problem is an injury, then powering through is dangerous. When there is injury, then healing, rest, and getting professional help are necessary. When an academic is tired and does not feel like working, a successful academic will power through. But successful academics know when there are elements of burnout, exhaustion, physical problems, or mental health issues; then healing, rest, and getting professional help are necessary. Understanding the difference is a challenging and critical skill.
Work does not always lead to success, but not working always leads to failure. Work as hard as you possibly can. Exhaust yourself. Train with discipline and purpose. But do not presume that hard work entitles you to anything. The only thing that hard work entitles you to is more work and the possibility of success. So I hope you enjoy the work.
Every day needs to be a personal best. Comparisons to others often lead to being discouraged and general unhappiness. The person that you were yesterday is the fairest and best competition to consider. My personal goal is to do something better than I have ever done that thing before. I find it highly motivating to be completely driven to be better every single day.
Work when no one else is working. Academia has a competitive component. It can never be assumed that one has more talent than the competition. The only thing that anyone has control over is outworking competition.
Rest is part of the program. Resting is not something one does only when exhaustion has been reached. Rest and recreation are fundamental elements of success. Physical and mental rest are preventative medicine. Rest must be scheduled into the agenda the same as any other high priority activity.
Competition drives improvement. The only way to get better is to face the highest level of competition that you can. Work with the most accomplished partners, apply for the most difficult grants, submit your papers to the highest impact factor journals. Every failure or disappointment will lead to improve skills.
Failure is part of the process. Losing can be discouraging. Most successful athletes hate losing far more than they enjoy winning. Yet, losing is a necessary part of the process to improve skills. Identify the important lessons and areas for improvement in all failures. The old martial arts saying, “either I win or I learn” applies here.
Adapt. There are many approaches to being successful as an academic. Breadth of skills and understanding the context in which you are functioning is necessary for success. It is not necessarily the smartest or most talented who thrive, those who can adapt to new situations and contexts have success.
Sometimes, you are not good enough. This is a hard one to face. Sometimes you do not have the requisite talent or skills or work habits to be at the level you wish or believe you deserve. At this point, it is necessary to either work to improve your skills or to realize that your goals may not be realistic. The biggest mistake that you can make is ignoring this information, blaming other people for your failures, or making excuses.
Some people have advantages. When competition appears to have unfair advantages, frustration can set in. In athletics, it does not seem fair that some people are born exceptionally tall or fast, have access to the best and most expensive coaching, have exceptional family support, can afford the best and most nutritious foods, or have no competing responsibilities that reduce training and practice time. Academia is like that, too. Life is not fair.
Conclusions. The sport-as-life analogy is a bit worn out. Sport is more than a popular culture touchstone for middle-age people who are laying on their couch or the purview former athletes who wax poetic about the glory days. There is a reason why I train judo well into my middle-age years. There are lessons that are still to be learned from sport that can be applied to many walks of life.
In many fields of study, it appears that the likelihood of getting a tenure-track academic position are about the same as making a living in sport. Despite hard lessons, sport and academia both work best when they are pursued with joy.