June 9, 2010

The Keys to Productivity: Discipline and Self-Confidence

Colleagues often ask me how I am able to publish consistently, to be an effective teacher, and to have a family. I am not sure what the exact answer is to this question, but I think it has a lot to do with two things – discipline and self-esteem. I am a pretty disciplined person when I want to be. And, I have a reasonably high level of self-esteem – at least I do not consistently doubt my own abilities and potential.

To me, it is funny to think of myself as a disciplined person. I was often a troublemaker in school and had to be “disciplined” by authority figures. On the other hand, when I want something, I have always worked for it and gotten it. In high school, I wanted all sorts of things my parents would never buy for me. So, I worked part-time to buy my own Coach bag, designer jeans, brand-name tennis shoes, and to get my hair and nails done. I never did very well in school. But, my last year in high school I decided I would give school a shot and finally earned decent grades. In college, I did miserably my first semester. But, once I decided I wanted to do better in college, I did.

It is also funny to think of myself as disciplined because I am also quite rebellious. I have always done what I want to do. I think, for me, the trick to being disciplined is convincing myself that I am the one who wants to succeed. If I really want something, I do not see it as a sacrifice to work to achieve it. This is important, because I do not like to sacrifice anything.

At this point in my career, being disciplined means that I sit my butt in front of the computer first thing every morning and write for at least one hour. Most mornings, I write for more than an hour. As I write consistently, I have a lot of material to work with, and am constantly sending things out for review. That is how I publish so much.

However, I think that the other element – self-esteem – is equally important. I am not sure why I have high self-esteem. However, I have come to notice that I do not doubt the quality of my work as much as many of my colleagues seem to. Or, at least, I am not that worried about what others might think about my work.

I think that my relative lack of concern over what others think is due to the fact that I have been through a lot in life. I have not had a hard life, but I have had a very full life and have seen a lot – both as a youth in Washington, DC and traveling around the world as a young adult. I spent most of my adolescent years hanging out on the streets in DC – going to clubs where shootings were common, attending friends’ funerals on a consistent basis, seeing the effects of crack cocaine on my neighborhood and on my friends’ parents, and watching many of my friends go to prison. When I was fully immersed in the life of the streets, self-confidence was a tool for survival. If I let my guard down or appeared weak, I was at risk of being jumped or at least being the butt of jokes.

I only spent about five years hanging out on the corner, going to go-go’s, and cruising around DC looking for fun. But, those were formative years – from about 14 to 19 – and many of the lessons I learned there have stayed with me.

Once I decided to focus on college and to leave that life behind, I found myself embarking on a whole different voyage. I began to travel all over the world. I spent a total of four months in Nigeria, a year in England, a year in Paris, and eight months in Lisbon. I also spent seven months traveling around Latin America just before beginning graduate school. By the time I got to graduate school, I felt as though I had lived and learned a lot. I was 25 years old, yet I spoke four languages and had lived on three continents. I saw myself as a person with a lot to contribute to sociological debates, and was not easily convinced otherwise.

The first year in graduate school was hard. It was not the haven of social justice I had imagined and my life experiences were not valued in the way I had expected. But, I made it through the first year and slowly found my allies. The few professors in the department who supported me did so fully and I took their encouragement to heart.

I was not particularly prolific as a graduate student. But, I was reasonably fast – I finished in six years even though I had three kids and did a year of fieldwork in Peru. With one publication on my CV and a half-written dissertation, I was lucky to get a job when and where I did.

Before getting my job, I had already begun to submit articles for consideration at journals. My first year on the tenure track, I began to apply for grants and fellowships. Many people wait until their article is “perfect” or their grant application is “impeccable” before they begin to submit. Not me. I send articles out when I finish them. I send grant and fellowship applications out when the deadline comes around. I am not careless about this; but, I have never let self-doubt get in the way of me submitting something. If I am not sure about the quality of something, I send it to a colleague and ask for honest feedback.

I get rejections – all of the time. But, I have learned that this is part of the process. You write an article; you submit it; it gets rejected; you submit it again; and you repeat this process until it is accepted. The same with grant applications. One of my colleagues just got a very prestigious grant – she told me it was the seventh time she had applied with the very same project. Her fantastic project was rejected six times. Confident it would win one day, she kept applying.

Self-esteem also helps a lot with teaching. I almost never over-prepare for class. I am very fortunate that I teach classes in my field. This means that I am teaching material I know very well. I know this and I know that I do not have to read and re-read tons of background material to prepare for class. Two hours before class begins, I sit down and review and/or revise my lesson plans. Then, I go to class and teach. It works every time.

Being productive, you see, is not necessarily about being brilliant. It has a lot to do with being disciplined enough to sit down and work and self-confident enough to submit your work for publication and/or funding.

1 comment:

  1. I'm happy to have stumbled upon this old post of yours -- an interesting view into your personal history. thanks for the great advice too!