Why I couldn’t become a Dr without being a clown first – Flying Awkwardly 2.0 – 2 years in the life of a PhD student.

Its been almost a year since I wrote my previous Blogpostflying awkwardly, a year in the life of a PhD student. I can’t say it went viral, but I got picked up in a few places and I’ve had a few requests for an update.. also as my regular followers will know that I’ve been documenting my clown/artistic journey and here also I’ve reached a bit of an ending point. I’ve realised that I can’t separate the art from life so I’ve decided to combine the two in more of a personal reflection about me, rather than a review of my institution.

Flying awkwardly struck a chord with lots of other PhD students who were at similar stages in the process. I still stand by the valid points I made, but also in hindsight, I’m now questioning If I was in anyway handling the situation like a bit of a knobber.

My journey in clown has been profoundly influential in my personal development this year. Through various Clownish processes I’m not going to go into, as well as a myriad of performance I’ve attended, it is almost as if a mirror has been held up and I’ve been able to become more self aware of my own behaviour. Not everyone’s clown journey has to be a soul-searching one, but I realise now that the type of wisdom I was seeking when I went back to university was in fact an internal one.. another reason why I was disappointed by the PhD process.

I’ve often been accused I thinking too much – this is true – so I am trying to keep the below brief and bullet point the realisations I’ve had through clown, which I’ve applied to my everyday life.  Here goes.

1) Be here, now.

Live in the present, not the future or the past. Commit fully to the moment you are in and never try and recreate what’s passed. This should hopefully mean you worry less and live more (I’m still working on it) and let go of things when its time to move on. If you cant commit fully to a situation or process the best thing you can do is walk away from it.

2) Play is fundamental aspect of life – do things for pleasure and share your gifts.

Make room for play and relaxation as this is where creativity flourishes and new ideas form, life is for living and I’ve realised there is nothing shameful in doing what makes you happy. Do not be afraid to share your gifts with the world. I now know that on completion of my PhD I will pursue  different areas. Work/life balance is essential, but this is easier when you pursue a true passion and fulfil and realise your full potential.

3) I sometimes let my overall life experience colour my opinions and reactions to people and situations which do not warrant them (The war is over).

When I feel threatened I shut down and all my defences kick in.  Often I project my previous negative experiences on people who I feel threatened by.. this was what was happening with my supervisory team.. once trust had been lost they became ‘the enemy’ I forgot that I had had very positive experiences of them previously and that they were often, in an overly complex and academically verbose way – trying to help me. I was instinctively fighting a war that was once necessary years ago but isn’t happening anymore. In short ‘I got in the way of myself’ and lost sight of my research. Rather than taking ownership over my disappointments, frustrations, team and my study, I bleeted profusely about the negatives and waited for a rescue. It’s been two years. Noone is coming. This is it. I stayed static hoping for change rather than accepting the circumstances , embracing the opportunities and looking for solutions.

It is, what it is.

4) The only constant is change

Says it all really.. get used to it and embrace it. This is true for both life and research.

5) Admitting your mistakes and embracing vulnerability

Closely related to point number 3. It takes courage to reveal yourself and your work to others. I’ve struggled with this and I’m still struggling but improving.. this leads me onto my next point..

6) An environment where we only give positive feedback, makes us feel safe but doesn’t do us any favours in the long run

This has been an important and recent realisation for me. Clown is taught in different ways and I felt blessed and nurtured when we only ever receive positive feedback from each other in this particular approach – it was exactly what I needed in the beginning. However, my only doubt about clown exists in this one little thing. I guess at uni I was concerned at the type and nature of feedback – in academia generally its not always delivered sensitively criticism is incessant and I think there are more effective ways in getting the best from someone. However I now see, that a world where we only focus on the good things is a world where we do not grow as effectively as we could, but more importantly, do not get a chance to build our defences.  The truth is in life, people will hurt you. Maybe not always intentionally but they will. Nobody goes through life without being tested. Nobody goes through life without conflict or incident with others. More importantly If I’m acting like an idiot, I need the people around me that I trust to tell me. As humans, we all act like idiots sometimes. Me, moreso than your average ape.

In research we need to be able to defend our values, our ideas and the only way to do that is to test the work for strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for growth. I still think that giving feedback is a skill, and as human beings we need to learn to accept (or not accept) different viewpoints of ourselves, and our work, and be honest and take ownership of the feedback we give to others. If I only receive positive feedback on my work at uni I would feel safe, but would fail to defend myself when really necessary. The harsh truth of life is, some people will get it – some wont. Its just the world we live in. We need to embrace this contradiction and be able to deal with both sides of the coin.  

7) Embrace uncertainty, risk and enjoy the journey

I’ve worked in planning for years. I’ve always had a plan. I didn’t plan any of my clown journey  and is been amazing. Sometimes its better to stray from the path you’ve been set, because in the uncertainly and unbridled exploration  is where you will begin to make discoveries both in life and research. I’ve always planned milestones and processes.. but whenever I reach one its on to the next thing.. embracing the ‘now’ means enjoying the journey for what it is.. Research journey, life or otherwise. At times your route will be diverted. Go with it. It may lead you to interesting and necessary places. 

8) The quickest way to showing compassion to others is practising self compassion and is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do (it’s okay to be you).

The research journey is an individual one, it is easy to compare yourself to others but that’s futile.  You need to manage yourself, be kind to yourself, take responsibility for your emotional and physical health as well as your intellectual development and keep your expectations realistic. Then it becomes easier to show this compassion for others. I’m still working on this. Really I am. Clown has taught me to start accept myself, my real self underneath all the other things that can shape and influence your identify. I’m not perfect, in fact I have many flaws  but I’ve made some encouraging discoveries.I’m also trying o manage my expectations of others, and accept that noone is perfect and we all fall down – even those in positions of responsibility. What matters is supporting those people as best as you can to help them get back up regardless of your role. I really want to get better at this.

9) When all is said and done the most important thing you can take away from any situation is friendship

I guess this is harder for me to apply in a PhD context, but I certainly know that despite the valuable performance skills I’ve gained and the insights I’ve had into myself, the most significant gain I’ve made through clown is in the people I’ve met. Life moves quickly and it can be difficult for me to find and make lasting and sincere friendships. I’m grateful for the people I’ve come into contact with I’ve made some good friendships and the other benefits pale into comparison to this.  Self reflection can be aided by good and trustworthy friends and performing is probably quite empty if you have noone who is genuinely behind your efforts. Being a PhD student is challenging and you need good people supporting you. For the most part, I’ve found some up for the job.  Sure – both research and performing require an independent self sufficient approach but there is strength and inspiration in the pack, and hopefully I’ve evolved enough to make myself vulnerable enough to trust them.

Coming full circle: What happens next?

So I guess you can say I’ve come full circle. Is been one hell of a journey and alongside all my other arts based reflections and therapy its been one hell of a year of self definition and discoveries  which have admittedly detracted from my studies. Its been essential that I go through this process, but after a year I am genuinely raw and exhausted. As far as my research goes if I was an OFSTED rating I would be in ‘special measures’ and there is every possibility that my lack of significant progress will prevent me from continuing beyond my annual monitoring in the autumn. But, thanks to clown school ,I’m in a place now where I can accept that whatever happens will be the right thing for me, and I know that I can handle whatever does.

I’m not sure if any of the above insights are transferable to other PhD students but this is where I am at the moment.. my immediate plans are a well earned break in the middle of July. Then I return and commit myself fully to the intense year I’ve got left, which will hopefully involve lots of research and cultural projects  as additional community engagement outputs/impact.

I’m hugely grateful and indebted to the clown course leader Holly whose patience, support and mentoring have been invaluable and a source of ongoing inspiration, and to all the other clowns I’ve met on my journey this year for sharing their hearts and minds.

Its been a life changing year of laughter and tears, and I firmly believe the skills I’ve learnt at clown school have potentially saved my PhD and the things learnt will continue to help me get through the process next year. I am challenged everyday to be strong enough to be trusting, vulnerable, truthful, emotionally calm, compassionate of others and full of laughter. It will always be a struggle but I hope I can get better a it, or at least it will become more natural to me. I hope that one day in the future I will be experienced enough to deliver this gift of clown to other people. But right now, I’ve got a theory that there are older people out there, alone in their homes who are about to lose their bus services – this being their only contact with the outside world. I need to find them and I need to ask them if they would like to share their story.

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One response to “Why I couldn’t become a Dr without being a clown first – Flying Awkwardly 2.0 – 2 years in the life of a PhD student.

  1. “There are three things that are extremely hard; Steel, a diamond and to know one’s self” – Benjamin Franklin. It sounds like that you are much more self aware than most folks I know.

    To succeed in a PhD, one has to learn how to fail. And then to learn it’s okay to fail because that’s how we learn to do things better. Research isn’t neat and tidy, there are no clear boundaries between right (or correct) and wrong (incorrect). What one hopes for is that the series of failures that occur along the way culminate in a new profound understanding of how the world is. That’s the measure of success. Keep pushing.

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