Columns

Malik ’18: The results of our efforts

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A few weeks ago, I faced a significant academic dilemma: I was very close to dropping one of my courses. I told myself that the course did not count toward my concentration and that it was too hard to handle in addition to the concentration-related ones I was taking. I feared that I could not devote enough energy to the course and that I would receive a poor grade. But I also recognized how much I enjoyed the professor’s lectures and the course material.

It was hard for me to weigh the perceived benefits against the perceived costs, especially because many benefits were out of sight. Yet I should not have relied on a tangible way of measuring the benefits of the course. I should have primarily relied on personal reflection instead.

What should matter are not only the benefits we gain from our work, but also our relationships to the work we do. If we don’t take the time to think about these matters, we could end up dragging our feet as we expend our energy and time inefficiently carrying out jobs, tasks and assignments we don’t even like. We could also end up leaving jobs, classes and lines of work that would have fit us better or that we would have prospered in.

For example, let’s say you are taking a course on painting, which is causing you to devote a lot of time and energy to learning how to paint. I believe that — as unfortunate as it is — societal pressures would make you justify why you were doing this. You would face a barrage of questions from others, which would make you determine the objective benefits of your endeavour. Which marketable skills would you be gaining from this? Wouldn’t this course just unnecessarily lower your GPA and therefore hurt your chances of finding a job? Would you ever become a painter as your profession?

These questions ignore the personal aspect of why you do what you do. Attending to this personal aspect is more important for you than making a case for the objective benefits of your work. You can try your best to make a case that pursuing art is an admirable goal (which, for the record, I firmly agree with), but you will not be able to convince everybody.

There will always be people out there — including friends, family members, employers and colleagues — who do not share your perspective or who believe you could be doing something more beneficial. And that is totally okay. You should not rely on external affirmation of your efforts and goals.

Let’s turn back to the personal dimensions of your work. There are two: the benefits you think you will gain from what you do and your relationship to what you do. It is important to think about the personal benefits of your work, because if you can’t find any, then it will be hard for you to be productive and work at your fullest capacity.

Yet when trying to determine the personal benefits, you could still face numerous problems. Even if you are sure that the course on painting will make you a better painter, it could be hard for you to find evidence for this. You may not receive letter grades for the class. The immediate feedback you get from your professor and peers could be mostly critical.

The key to overcoming this issue is a bit of extra imagination. You may have to expand your vision or stretch your mind a bit to figure out how you are benefiting from your work. It may take you 50 attempts at a landscape painting before you make one that matches your vision of a good landscape painting.

This mindset can be applied to other fields: You might need to read the chapter in your science textbook about how to design an experiment again and again before you can conduct your own experiment, and you may have to calculate debits and credits until it becomes second nature before you can do more advanced accounting. This extra bit of imagination is not only useful for providing encouragement regarding your personal skills, but also for helping you see how what you do in one line of work can be beneficial in other aspects of your life. For example, I had no idea that the unit on research methods in my introductory psychology course last year would be vitally useful for me when I wrote my first Herald article, which was about a scientific study.

When I was deciding whether to drop my course, I lacked imagination. I was too focused on immediate concerns, such as my GPA and my concentration requirements. I should have instead allowed for the possibility that what I was learning in the course might be useful to me in the future.

Finally, beyond considering benefits, you have to reflect on your personal relationship with your work. Do you like it? Does it fulfill you? These seem like simple questions, but I fear we do not consider them enough.

I know we often have to take classes or perform jobs that we don’t like. But I hope we can, at some point, make advances toward doing work that we like to some extent. If we are constantly dragging our feet, we will not try our hardest, and we will find it difficult to continue. If we like what we do, we will likely put in greater effort and continue what we are doing.

Hopefully, by expanding your imagination and giving more weight to your personal opinions about your work, you will avoid giving up what you like and be productive in achieving your professional and academic goals.

Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at ameer_malik@brown.edu.