Photo © Josie Elias
Think big. That’s the kind of thing adults say to children. Think big. Aim high. Reach for the stars.
When I was at school adults, especially teachers, often said things like that to the class. We’d all sit there with big, round eyes. It sounded grand. At the time ‘think big’ seemed to be synonymous with growing up. It cropped up time and again at school. The bigger we got the bigger our thinking. Nobody actually told us how big to think or how high to aim. Not one of those round eyed kids put up their hand and asked the teacher if they had reached the stars. We never asked what would happen when we arrive at the mysterious destination known as ‘think big’. But we never doubted for one moment that we would get there.
Of Bunnies & Balloons:
We accepted, unequivocally, the wisdom of our elders. In 2nd year it was easy to believe in ‘think big’; as easy as believing in the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas. Moving from high school to university ‘think big’ underwent an existentialist crisis verging towards nihilism. If the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist, all of childhood is a lie…blah…blah..blah… All my big thinking had created was a balloon of hot air. I don’t blame my teachers. They were well meaning, but misguided. They should have told the round eyed kids in 2nd year to think small.
Think small, you say? No need to sound so scandalised. Thinking small is the biggest step forward you can take. That sounds kind of zen. Let’s run that one more time:
Thinking small is the biggest step forward you can take.
I prefer to call it ‘acorn thinking’ and this is how it works. Thinking small means: focus on the little things. As demonstrated by the Russian writer Nabokov:
Pay attention to detail.
That doesn’t mean ignore the bigger picture. It means that by focusing on the little things, or microcosms; the big thing, or macrocosm, will take care of itself. Ever heard the saying, take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. This concept can be applied to everything. From cooking supper – chop the onion, chop the garlic, add to pan etc. – to learning a new piece of music. From saving up for a new ukulele, to organising your next concert. From planning a trip to Nepal, to planning your PhD. Hang on! You don’t like my cliche about the pennies and the pounds? Read on MacSquirrel…
Doctor of Philosophy. Sounds pretty big, right? That goes straight into the macrocosm basket. That’s the Big Bertha of all my ideas. But if I think about it too much my brain starts to spin. I’m like a squirrel on steroids. I’m trying to gather all my acorns in one afternoon. I’m already panicking about my time frame. My deadline. (Has anyone even stopped to think what a fatalistic word deadline is? Sounds like a firing squad!) I have so may things to do. Maybe too many. I’m not even sure I know where to start. On top of that I’m doing my PhD part-time. Part-time! That means I also have a job. It’s even more complex: I’m a musician. My work is not 9 to 5. There are students, workshops, events, festivals, concerts to organise. I have to practise my instruments. I also have a nice Squirrel family. Help!
Think small. Start with the basics. Follow the advice of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: Adorn thyself with simplicity.
My first task, therefore, is to work out a way of managing all the different components of my life. Here’s the basic list:
It’s not just a matter of achieving my goals; it’s about staying sane. Most importantly, I want to be a happy squirrel. I want to enjoy gathering all these acorns. I want to make some of my acorns grow. How they grow and what they grow into is dependent on me. There will be storm clouds and rain (drum roll), a few wrong turns, the odd pot hole (ouch!). But I also expect sunshine and clear skies. There will be…OK! Stop all the cliches.
Btw, Do you notice how much I like cliches? Why is this? Well, if you can apply a cliche to something then you can be assured that you are not alone. You are not even marginal. You are part of a collective experience. In other words: other people have felt your pain. It’s what our Stoic friend Marcus Aurelius calls, the common language of life.
So! Where do I begin? (Hm…Sounds like the first line of a love song…)
The longest journey starts with a single step. Lao Tzu
(See…cliches are multi-cultural!)
One thing is very clear to me: before I embark on my magnum opus I need to organise my life. My organisation skills are, to be honest, dodgy. I admit it. This was highlighted last week when I realised I had booked myself to be in four different locations on the same day – Guildford, Sherborne, London and Spain. Yep! That doesn’t work. (Squirrel in the headlights. Squirrel is not Yoda. Squirrel is not Harry Potter. Squirrel is stupid.)
Keeping the iCould calendar on my MacBook up to date (Note To Self: this means EVERY day) is, it is proven, essential. For the last year I’ve also been keeping a bullet journal but I’m a bit casual about it – especially recently. The blank page for October left me a confused squirrel. Tabula rasa. After last week’s appointment fiasco and subsequent meltdown I’m making a conscious effort to write in my bullet journal EVERY night before I go to bed. I’m conditioning myself to do this EVEN when I’m a tired squirrel. I’ve set myself a specific time to write in my bullet journal in order to avoid ‘mañana sydrome’.
‘Mañana sydrome’ means, “oh! I can do that tomorrow, or tomorrow, or tomorrow….”(aka: Hamlet Squirrel). I’m not allowed to go to bed until I’ve checked and updated my bullet journal. (NTS. That’s called taking control of my life.)
Getting My Acorns in the Right Basket:
Having a diary on my computer and a bullet journal means I have two ways of keeping track of meetings, lessons, and other key events. It’s potentially two ways of confusing myself so I’ll have to be extra careful to keep them synced. It’s no use updating one and not the other. I can hear you shouting, why not just use the iCloud calendar on your MacBook? Well, the advantage of having the bullet journal is that it is an A5 size notebook that fits in my bag. I can take it out and about with me. (NTS: I need to remember to do that.) If I need to add an appointment, or event, when I’m out I can write it straight into my BJ. When I get home I can update my iCloud calendar. (Yes, I can.) It just takes a minute, maybe two – which I consider a good investment of my time. Plus, if iCloud crashes, or my computer dies, or I am away from my desk, or the house falls into a giant sink hole while I am out, I’ll still have a record of my appointments.
Plus: I like it. (Happy squirrel = productive squirrel.)
That was simple. I’m an methodical squirrel. (Is this half the battle?) But can I be a Ninja Squirrel? The thing I really like about the BJ is I have room to write lists, reflections, bits of information, doodles, chord charts, inspirational quotes. It’s nice to have space on the paper, and I’m really enjoying writing by hand. For many years I’ve used my laptop for everything. As in e-ver-y-thing. Not just the calendar, but contacts, correspondence, invoices, leaflets and writing. I’m a bit ashamed to say this but I’ve hardly written anything by hand for years. For goodness sake: I’ve even started sending e-cards to my mother! (Actually, Mama Squirrel really likes them.) The big question is: can I maintain my new found organisation skills to become a Ninja Squirrel? Stay tuned…I’ll have to get back to you in about 3 months to see if I have attained ninja status.
Leonardo da Squirrel:
Writing by hand. That’s been done before, hasn’t it? Here’s an idea. As well as keeping my BJ what if I start doing some of my PhD work on paper? Pa-per.
It felt a bit old fashioned but I went to the stationery shop and bought a big project book and several smaller notebooks. It was like going back to school! As soon as I got home I starting writing in the project book. I wrote ideas, goals, concerns, things I need to do, lists, a first paragraph. Basically anything. It was fairly ‘stream of consciousness’ but I liked how the words flowed onto the paper. I was surprised how happy I felt to see my hand writing again! Not just scribbled notes but whole paragraphs. It was like being reunited with an old school friend.
I felt really connected with my work. I felt creative. Inspired! It was all rather heady.
Squirrel Takes Control: (But not of the world…just yet.)
Once I’d got the ‘stream of consciousness’ flood out my system I paused to make a cup of tea. I contemplated my feelings of surprise and fulfilment at the simple act of writing. Could something so simple as writing by hand be so productive? Be so empowering? Using Word or Pages on the laptop creates clean looking, professional documents but these programmes are clinical, sterile and devoid of personality. Hand writing is individual. It has personality. You also tend to think before you write. After just a few pages of notes this PhD lark was really starting to feel like MY PhD.
After my initial writing surge I spent some time organising my notebooks. As you can see I’m serious about getting organised.
supervisor meeting notebook
historical notes notebook
general thoughts and frustrations notebook
By the end of the day I felt as if I had taken the first step on my PhD journey. I had a sense of purpose. It’s not huge. It’s just one acorn. But it’s good squirrel fodder!
(Feel free to start an Acorn Movement. Squirrels of the world unite!)