One of the greatest stressors to all PhD students is the future.
While we like to think of the future as bright and exciting, our everyday view of it is a little bleaker. And if you think about it, almost every worry that PhD students have is because of uncertainty, uncertainty about the future:
How will my research work out?
How will my presentation be received?
What if I don’t get any questions after my presentation?
What if I get a question I can’t answer?
Will my supervisors like what I’ve done this week?
What if I do all of this work and it doesn’t show anything?
What if no one likes my work?
Will I get a job after graduating?
Will I even graduate?
These questions, and many others about what the future holds, are faced by almost every PhD student at some point, and usually at many points.
That fear is the single most destructive force to productivity – how many times have you needed to start an essay or paper only to be stopped by your fear of wanting to get it right? “What if it’s not good enough?” That fear leads to paralysis. That fear leads to failure.
There are many different perspectives kicking around designed to help people get over uncertainty and a fear of what the future will hold, but in this piece, I would like to introduce a simple mathematical model showing just how bright the future is and hopefully remove your fear of the future once and for all.
What is the worst part about doing something? To me, it’s the uncertainty of whether you’ll actually succeed, whether that energy and time you put in will make your goal come to fruition. If what I’m doing fails, then that’s wasted time, energy, and a blow to my ego.
That last part about the ego no longer bothers me too much. We’ll cover why at the end.
If you had a goal, but the chances of you achieving it were only 1% per attempt, would you be thrilled about it? Probably not. I mean, 1% is lousy, you have a better chance of winning some lotteries!
Now, you might not be so thrilled about such a measly chance of achieving your goal with each attempt, but the thing is that nothing just happens by itself; if you don’t do something, then you have a 0% chance of achieving your goal. Things don’t fall into your lap, unfortunately. Without effort, nothing happens.
So, it doesn’t matter how many times you think about your goal, about how best to approach it, then conclude that it would be great to achieve, and then not do anything, you’ll never achieve it. You could go through this thought-cycle one million times and you’ll still be no closer to your goal, because one million multiplied by 0% is still 0%.
In light of that, a 1% chance of succeeding looks pretty attractive now, doesn’t it? There’s actually a chance! (“You’re telling me there’s a chance!” – if you know where that’s from, let me know 😉)
In fact, any time I think to myself that something has a 1% chance of succeeding, I’m ecstatic! “You mean to tell me that all I have to do is try 100 times and I’m statistically guaranteed to achieve my goal?? What am I waiting for then!” That means, every attempt brings me one step closer to succeeding! From that simple model, we can now conclude that success is simply the amalgamation of our attempts, whether that’s one attempt or one hundred attempts. Removing any of those attempts will result in a gap between where you started and your goal – those attempts were bridges, bridging the gaps. Some of those bridges helped you understand how to overcome the next obstacle, while others helped you try at the right time – a method that can work won’t always work because every method needs the right conditions to work. Sometimes, the conditions are wrong, and you simply can’t tell until you try.
Statistically speaking, the only way of not reaching your goal is by doing nothing. Doing nothing leads to failure. If you continually try, then eventually you’ll be statistically guaranteed to succeed. If it takes you 20 tries to achieve something, then you can conclude that, roughly speaking, every attempt brings you 5% closer to your goal. As tempting as it might be to think that success is a discrete variable (at one point you weren’t successful, then the next you were), it’s not. Someone who has tried to achieve something 10 times is much more successful than someone who hasn’t tried at all yet. That person who hasn’t tried yet hasn’t even learnt the lessons that the other person has learnt from their 10 attempts. They’re still well behind, and until they start trying, they have no chance of catching up.
So, whenever you start feeling fearful of the future, just know that abiding by that fear is what leads to failure. By ignoring it, and trying, you will eventually succeed. Every time you try, you’re one step closer to succeeding. Every time you shy away, you’ve actually just wasted energy (brainpower) thinking about it and not doing anything. In fact, arguably, every time you think about something and shy away from it, you’re actually moving one step backwards because you build barriers in your mind, barriers that you have to expend energy in overcoming later, if you want to succeed. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Finally, one thing that people worry about is what other people will think if they try and don’t reach their ultimate goal. Every attempt makes you grow. Every attempt makes you more mature. Every attempt makes you more interesting. Every attempt makes people like you a little more. Every attempt makes people respect you a little more. Every attempt makes people admire you a little more. Every attempt makes people appreciate you.
People want to see the person behind the success. No one who has ever achieved anything of worth has gotten it right on the first attempt, and people want to see that. They want to learn from you.
Concluding remarks: As a PhD student, you’re so lucky in that your job is not to know everything. It’s not to get things right every time. Remember, you’re a student. You’re studying how to do things right. You’ve literally been afforded the opportunity to try, and get things wrong. Make the most of it. You might never get that chance again.
This is a sponsored article, written by Dr John Hockey. Dr John Hockey is a widely published author and has written numerous books to help PhD students during their degree. Some of his books can be found here.
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