The middle is where it gets tough.
In the beginning, you’ve still got all the enthusiasm. And when you can see the finish line, you start your sprint.
The middle, though, often feels like a quicksand of pointless deadlines, tasks and loose ends. Why I am undergoing this, again?
In the middle, the mountain peak we remember seeing — hallucinating? — so vividly from base camp appears to be covered in fog. You’re not sure that you’re still going up, let alone how to reach it.
The bad news is, we can’t change that.
But what we can do is making sure we survive and come out stronger.
Not making an impact
Many people I know with entry-level positions don’t enjoy their jobs. Fellow philosophers tell eerily similar stories about their friends and partners, ‘working in the real world’.
In the middle of a talk, Simon Sinek shares a telling experience:
“I keep meeting these wonderful, fantastic, idealistic, hardworking, smart Millennials. They’ve just graduated school, in their entry-level job. I sit down with them. I go, “How’s it going?” They go, “I think I’m gonna quit.” I go, “Why?” They’re like “I’m not making an impact.” I go, “You’ve been here 8 months.””
The contrast with our teenage-ambitions — “impact the world” — is bitter.
And eight months is not even that bad.
Here’s a rhetorical question about my own profession, academic philosophy:
This is true. It’s not an exaggeration. It’s accurate.
In these eight months, no, you didn’t make an impact. And your dissertation never will, anyway.
What this means: in every path to the summit, you’ll stop ascending for a while.
But that doesn’t mean you’re no longer climbing.
What are middles for?
In the middle, your goal shouldn’t be to pull off what those who’ve already reached the other side attain. While it’s true that no-one will read your dissertation, and that you’re not making an impact, this misses the point.
When we evaluate time spent in the middle by the same standard we use to evaluate time spent at the top — did I make an impact? how many readers did I get? — we apply the wrong criteria.
Rather, what dissertations and entry-level jobs are for, is (1) self-improvement and (2) learning how to push through a dip. (If they have an external purpose, theirs would merely a signaling one: proving that you are capable of getting to the next level.)
The correct measure, then, is whether you’re progressing.
Focus on progress
You need to realize that you’re only in the middle and adjust your evaluation criteria accordingly. Right now, don’t worry about readership or impact, but focus on your progress. Use it as your sole indicator.
In the dip, your motivation will fluctuate. One week will be great and the next week you’ll wonder why the hell you started climbing. It will not always feel like you’re doing the correct thing.
Indeed, progress is the fuel that you need to make it.
It will take a long time before you’re at the top, and, if you still want to get there, then your only option is to keep on pushing it forward. Looking for a different path and forging different plans won’t help you go around the hole.
In fact, such energy-investments will only distract. It’s no miracle, for example, that people who do too many projects are mediocre at some things and good at none.
These people are afraid to push through.
When to stop
Another reason why the middle is rough is that, in it, the ratio between inputs and outputs is heavily skewed — and not in your favor.
This is hard, but it also puts you in a unique position to assess to what extent your motivation is honest.
If it’s not, the hurdles will cause you to give up, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Many ambitious projects might not work or might make you see that this is not your cup of tea. So if this ‘unfairness’ makes you worry about getting the credit, then stop and reflect.
How you react to the dip can help you to make sure you’re not going up the Alps while you should have tried to tackle the Himalaya.
For instance, like other academic disciplines, philosophy suffers from institutionally generated pressures to publish. This means spending buckets of time writing papers merely for the sake of getting them accepted into journals nobody reads because you need to have these papers and journals on your CV.
Personally, I can think of more interesting activities to fill my time with. The middle has made me aware of necessary time-investments that getting to this top requires and I’m not willing to make.
And as I’m climbing this different mountain now, I’m starting to wonder whether, perhaps, the climbing is what it was about in the first place.