A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams



Mastering the Art

Working or playing? Perhaps it doesn’t matter


A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between [her] work and [her] play, [her] labour and [her] leisure, [her] mind and [her] body, [her] education and [her] recreation. [S]he hardly knows which is which. [S]he simply pursues [her] vision of excellence through whatever [s]he is doing and leaves others to determine whether [s]he is working or playing. To [her]self s/he always seems to be doing both. Enough for [her] that [s]he does it well.

–Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, 1932

I first heard this quote while browsing through the archives of an online Q&A session about leaving academia. To many academics, the delicate balance between work and play is both our motivation and our downfall. With no supervisor or fixed schedule, and with the measures of our success spread out over decades, we are constantly plagued with the uncertainty and the incessant wondering: have we worked enough?

The truth is that an academic should never ask herself if she has worked enough. To be in academia is to shun the world’s notion of success and to pursue passion and knowledge for the sake of the pursuit.

I am slowly internalizing the truth of this passage. I wake in the morning when it pleases me and sometimes I work right away, and sometimes I sit around playing games. I take naps when I am sleepy, think when I run, drink when I write and teach while I socialize. On a holistic level I am certainly much happier, more tolerant of others and more creative. However there are difficulties in applying this philosophy.

The master of life leaves others to determine whether she is working or playing. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the application. It would be lovely if each of us as individuals could determine our destinies, but like it or not we exist in a society which is governed by a culture. Our culture determines whether or not we are successful and whether or not we are deserving of our fate and for most of us, our culture believes that hard work which results in failure merits sympathy while too much play merits disdain.

Thus, the master in the art of life is also a master in the art of human relationships. For she must simultaneously satisfy her craving to play with her need to appear to those around her as an honest member of society. Perhaps the master is someone who has found a way to get paid to play, so that the distinction becomes meaningless to everyone.

Left Foot, Right Foot

Running is a metaphor for life. Every hardship you face in your daily world is represented and condensed in a run. From the monday morning drag to the friday evening crash, every experience has its parallel in running.

Even the most seasoned runner has days when she simply does not want to start moving. You would think that concentrating on the rewards of the run would help — the feeling of accomplishment, the rush of energy when the run is completed, the flushing out of your body’s gunk and sluggishness, the health benefits — but before you tie your laces they are still an eternity away. The more you think about the run ahead, the heavier your legs begin to feel and the more you just want to climb back into bed and pull the sheets over your head.

In order to get moving on these lethargic days, runners have to come up with tricks to get themselves out the door. I’ve learned to get up and put on my running clothes before I even leave my bedroom for my morning pee. Somehow being dressed for a run makes it seem like more work not to run than it does to just go outside. Once outside, on really bad days, I’ll tell myself that I’m just going to walk the distance, or the time, instead of actually running. But that’s when everything starts to move. I can’t stand wasting time. I might get half a block away from my house before I’m annoyed at how slow I’m moving and I start to jog. As one foot moves in front of the other, my pace will slowly begin to pick itself up and my back straighten. I’m running.

Working on my dissertation, a huge project that seems to never end, is the same way. There are days when the amount of work I have to accomplish seems so huge that I don’t even want to leave my house. If I dilly-dally around at home for too long, thinking about and planning out everything that I have to do, it becomes harder and harder to leave until at some point I know it plainly won’t happen. However if I put on my clothes and walk out that front door, I’m halfway to my office before it occurs to me how much work the rest of the day is going to be. It helps that my commute is downhill and after a while momentum will literally carry me to the finish.

Whenever my life seems to overwhelm me, or the distance I need to travel seem dauntingly far, I tell myself quietly “Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot.” Even if my body feels to heavy to move, the amount of responsibility too heavy to carry, I think about my morning runs when the simple process of putting my left foot in front of my right foot puts me that much closer to the finish. It seems small, but a run is nothing more than left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. In the same way any task in my daily life is nothing more than the tiniest steps, each one carrying me closer to my goal.

You may never know where your next project will take you. Completing my dissertation is the farthest I’ve ever been able to think for the last six years of my life, and I still have no idea what will come next. Uncertainty is scary and it breeds inertia, and paralysis of the mind. But every day that I run reinforces my confidence that I will get there. Even though you know in your mind that this is the way life moves, your heart will not believe you without practice. My practice for life is my run. Every day. Every day. If I can get through my run then I can get through everything else. Just by putting my left foot out and following it with my right.

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