Thursday, 13 January 2011

Do we love what we are doing?

I have received a very interesting comment on my previous post and rather than replying to it I am writing another post. It is seldom that I am asked the question whether I love what I am doing, but I have on many occasions said that I feel privileged because for my whole life I have mostly been doing things that I love and been able to support myself on that.

To be fair, I must admit that I had a very good start. I grew up in a family of academics and artists. My grandfather was a professor and a vice-chancellor of Moscow Conservatory, my father was a professor in the same conservaroty, my mother was an art historian, her cousin was a professor of philosophy, and so on. With such background, you just cannot imagine yourself outside of academia, so I never even considered the option. During my chiuldhood and youth I clearly saw the gratification: books published, works performed, students winning competitions and getting famous. So I knew all the time that it would be worth while. But of course it is only worth while if you are really passionate about what you are doing. I am passionate about children's literature, and I want my students and colleagues to be just as passionate. But surely I have seen people who earned their higher degrees without enjoying it. I remember once in Stockholm a very weak PhD dissertation was passed, and in a private conversation afterwards, when I commented on the poor quality, a colleague said cynically: "Well, it's not worse than yours or mine". To which I could only say: "Don't know about yours, but mine is in fact thousand times better". This colleague wasn't passionate about his work. He was just doing what he was good at.

Doing a PhD is a huge investment, not only in terms of time and energy, but emotionally. If you do a PhD because you have to for your career and after that start thinking about what you want to do with your life and whether it was worth while, then perhaps it's too late. No, it's never too late! But if you only do a PhD as a duty, then I don't think it can be good. (Of course, there are weak theses written by people who are passionate about them).

I have done a lot of work that I wasn't passionate about, mostly at the beginning of my career, at the time when beggars are no choosers, when you take any task because you think it will be helpful. But I have always tried to become passionate about any task I had. As a senior academic, you have to do a lot of work you do not enjoy, such as recommendation letters and committee meetings, but that's the price, and I am trying to tell myself that something good may come out of these too.

I guess I am extremely lucky. In an ideal world, everybody should be passionate about what they do.

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