Alternative title: The Most Millennial Blog Post I’ll Ever Publish
I spend a lot of time on the internet, and while I’m on here I have this tendency to get really excited when I see someone doing something cool, and to want to join in. I’ve dropped a lot of time and money on trying to become a fashion blogger, travel vlogger, photographer, makeup aficionado, knitter, and Instagram yogini. All without success – by which I mean not the number of followers, but the amount of satisfaction I ever gained with what I was making and doing. It just turns out that I, for instance, actually enjoy consuming content much more than I do the hard work of making it.
In an attempt to spend this year doing things that are really an amalgamation of my talents, interests and goals, rather than just hopping on someone else’s bejewelled bandwagon, I’m going to exorcise three of the ideas that have been dripping all over the inside of my cranium lately.
Caveat: this post is not an argument against picking up new hobbies, or setting ambitious goals, or being creative; nor is it an argument that you shouldn’t try something if someone out there is already doing it “better than I ever could”. That’s always going to be true when you’re starting out with something, and I won’t forget what one of my kickboxing instructors told me when I first started the sport:
What will happen in your first few classes is that you’ll be surrounded by people who are better than you. You’ll be the worst in the room. You’ll be tempted to look at them and only see how much more forcefully they kick, how much more control they have of their core, how they never let their hands drop below their face, and you’ll only see far you have to go. You’ll feel discouraged. Don’t. Instead look at how far they’ve come and know that if you put in the work you’ll get there too.
What I am talking about in this post is the non-reflective act of mistaking others’ passions for your own, rather than putting in the work in terms of figuring out what it is that gets you out of bed in the morning.
On with the show. Here are three creative things I won’t be undertaking in 2020.
I won’t start a podcast about doing a PhD
A. N.: Since publishing this blog post, I’ve received so much feedback from people that they don’t want me to abandon this idea, that I’m considering running with it after all. I’m still leaving this up here anyway, to show how much of a flip-flopper I am. I can’t even commit to not committing to something.
Half-way through 2019, a few months before moving to Manchester, I got the idea that the world needed a podcast about the process of doing a PhD. I planned to release two episodes a month, on a rotating basis: one episode would be a kind of audio-blog about my own experience in that month of the PhD, and in the next episode I would interview one of my fellow PhD students or occasionally fellow guests such as academic publishers or admissions officers about their perspective.
I was excited because I felt that the whole process was too cloaked in mystery and a kind of intellectualist glamour, and that not enough people knew how to get into and survive a doctoral project. My key motivations for starting the podcast were improving access to higher education, prioritising mental health and resilience above all else during the PhD, and of course an insatiable curiosity about the actual projects my colleagues and I were pursuing. The podcast was going to be called That’s So Niche (because that was the first phrase out of most people’s mouths after asking about my project), and I even made cover art:
And I won’t be making it.
This is a hard one to admit, because I’ve told so many people about this plan in the last year, including my colleagues at my old job at Audible – and when you’re telling world-experts and field-leaders in the art of the spoken word about your ideas and those ideas are met with support and encouragement, it’s very difficult to change your mind. That said, I doubt any of those colleagues will really care that the already highly saturated podcast space won’t receive one more half-heartedly produced contribution by someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing.
I have to say that I’m quite sad about letting this project go. I would have loved a record of this unique time in my life, and I love talking to people about mental health, and I truly am fascinated with the minutiae of every single PhD project I’ve ever heard about. PhD students are so passionate and articulate, and I would have loved to give them a platform to talk about how and what they’re doing.
As a parting gift to this idea, here are some podcasts (and one blog) already doing something like what I’d hoped to do:
- The Familiar Strange – “The Familiar Strange is a podcast about doing anthropology: that is, about listening, looking, trying out, and being with, in pursuit of uncommon knowledge about humans and culture.”
- Ologies – “Volcanoes. Drunk butterflies. Beer science. Bee drama. Take away a pocket full of science knowledge and charming, bizarre stories about what fuels these professional -ologists’ obsessions. Humorist and science correspondent Alie Ward asks smart people stupid questions.”
- The Thesis Whisperer (BLOG) – “The Thesis Whisperer blog is dedicated to the topic of doing a PhD and completing a dissertation. This blog is 10 years old. It is managed and edited by Associate Professor Inger Mewburn, Director of Research Training at the Australian National University. I publish a new post on the last Wednesday of every month.”
- AcaDames – “AcaDames is a biweekly podcast that explores whether being a woman in academia is a dream, game, or scam through interviews with a diverse range of women. Discussions cover career trajectories, finances, childbearing decisions, spirituality, the ever-present patriarchy, and everything in between.
RIP, That’s So Niche. I have loved thinking about making you.
I won’t release an EP of sultry, lilting folk-pop
I mean, not that I was going to anyway this year. But since songwriting and I have always had a bit of a love-hate relationship (in that I love making music but hate the discipline it takes to become any good at it), and since I’m now kind of writing my PhD about music (how the hell did that happen?) it’s been on my mind a lot more lately.
I’ve been writing songs since I was thirteen years old. That means that 78 dog years have gone by without my releasing a single thing for public consumption aside from a few awkward videos on YouTube. And I’m not so untalented that I couldn’t pull a five-track EP out of my guitar.
Unfortunately, I am so lazy. Plus, I’m patiently waiting for the day where my beloved friend Sam (more on him below) has the time, energy and interest to help me produce some music. I just don’t want to do it with anyone else.
In 2019, I did manage to go to an open mic night. In a half-deserted pub on the south side of Manchester, glowing gently on an eighth of a tab of acid, I regaled my patient and supportive cohort of fellow PhD students, plus two or three members of the public and a charismatic Elvis-impersonator, with some songs. Here’s some proof (see Elvis behind me):
I actually happen to have a song about Elvis, the real one… Anyway. I originally thought that when I moved to Manchester, I’d want to get really active in the music scene. But I’d forgotten one crucial thing: I hate being really active in any one thing. So honestly, that open mic night has kind of satisfied me for now and so I’ll continue to just pick up my guitar to write and sing – exclusively when the mood takes me.
Here are some beautiful recent and upcoming releases I encourage you to enjoy in the absence of an FPott original:
- Sam Hanlan – The aforementioned beloved friend is not only a genius sound engineer and producer, but also a phenomenal songwriter who recently released a debut EP called Sharp Relief (my favourite track on it is called “Coming Easy“). I hate describing other people’s music in comparative ways but something about him always reminds me of Johnny Flynn, if Johnny Flynn moved to Berlin and ate Dylan Thomas books for breakfast. Also check out Sam’s electronic music project, Freedom & Such.
- Calum Pratt – Another beloved friend, and I’m not someone who bandies that term about lightly. Calum and Sam really are two of my actual loved ones. Calum is also a painfully talented musician who makes folk sound sexy and sharp and modern and sad. He writes the most haunting, goosebumpy (isn’t a word, should be) music you can imagine and his voice is a killer… a ladykiller. Sorry, Calum, I’ll stop now. His upcoming LP, produced by Sam, is called This Time Will Be Different and is coming out in just over a month. Keep your ears peeled (especially for my favourites, “Tether”, “Extinguish Embers”, “Parting Gift” and the title track “This Time Will Be Different”) and listen to Adrift in the meantime.
- Andy Shauf – Ok, look, I’m not comparing myself to the unofficial King of Canada here but his latest album just came out and you need to listen to it. Here, I’ll make it easy for you:
I won’t vlog about hiking the Camino de Santiago (I also won’t hike the Camino)
I. Love. Hiking. Cue narcissistic hiking collage.
I suppose that, technically speaking, a couple of those trips were horse riding ones but you could say that someone was still hiking during them. It’s just that I was sitting on the person doing the hiking. And in fact, one of those trips (Mongolia 2014) inspired this entire PhD thing keeping me busy at the moment.
So it is established that FPott is a fan of getting outside and on her (or someone else’s) feet, but if there’s one thing I love almost more than hiking itself, it’s watching other people hike. You may not be aware of this but there is an active hiking community online, where people share detailed trip reports of their adventures, spread the word about dangerous weather conditions or hikers who’ve gone missing, give advice on wilderness first aid, console each other through post-trail depression (it’s a thing) and compare notes on the latest in ultralight gear, getting into the minutiae of niche debates like quilts vs sleeping bags, hiking boots vs trail runners and tarps vs tents. And the highlight of it all, for me, is the filmmakers and photographers who record their hikes to make accessible some of the world’s most beautiful and challenging trails:
- Dixie, AKA Homemade Wanderlust, has hiked the three famous long-distance trails in the US (AT, PCT and CDT) as well as the Camino, and she and her editor have cut each of these together into lo-fi documentaries of life on the trail.
- Darwin, AKA Darwin on the Trail, has hiked a couple of the long-distance trails in the US as well as some lesser-known trails like the Arizona Trail and even a trip in Scotland.
- Cotezi Hikes is another graduate of the PCT who makes some great hiking videos, amongst other things about staying vegan on trail.
- Maiu, AKA Maiu Takes a Hike, is a hiker from Estonia whose hike across Estonia made me want to visit the Baltic a whole lot.
- Athena Mellor is a UK-based hiker who makes beautiful videos of her outings across the North of England.
- Marie and Nil from Deux Pas Vers L’Autre are currently undertaking one of the maddest hikes I’ve ever heard of: over land across Europe, from Portugal to Turkey. They’re currently in Bulgaria.
You know how this goes by now so I’ll spare you the spiel: I wanted to join in. So I decided to hike and vlog my walk of the Camino del Norte this summer.
Only… I’ve had the chance to do this kind of thing several times and haven’t followed through. I didn’t record anything on my hike from Oberstdorf to Vernago with my mum in 2017, haven’t vlogged any of my not-yet-completed circumambulation of the Berlin Wall, didn’t in fact film a thing in Iceland or Georgia or the Peak District… and the reason is that I don’t like the act of vlogging. I like hiking, but I don’t like the mental work of thinking of a story to tell about the hike that goes beyond “I walked quite far and got a bit sweaty”, and I really don’t like sitting at a computer for hours to edit that together into something coherent. Plus, I don’t like being on camera.
And I’ve decided that as long as I’m a broke PhD student who lives in a beautiful country full of incredible trails and has to write a massive research proposal this summer, this may not be the best year to undertake a long and expensive hike like the Camino. So I’ll do a few hikes in the UK instead… and if I fancy it, I might throw together a few words and photos on here.
Can you tell I’ve been writing too many academic essays recently? Blog posts don’t normally come with conclusions… but this one will.
In writing this post, I’ve reflected a lot on how creative activity is distributed in my life. Because I do have many creative hobbies that are and will stay part of my life: I cook, I crochet, I take photos, I write, I play guitar, I paint my nails… The difference between the three projects I’m setting down and the hobbies I just listed is the level of dedication and discipline required.
When you look at the people I mentioned above, many (although by no means all) are doing whatever creative project they’re doing for a living. And regardless of whether it’s their main source of income or not, the reason they produce such amazing podcasts, music and videos is that they pour their heart and soul into their work, putting in the time, money and energy required and making serious sacrifices in other parts of their life which I’m just not willing to make. And – and this is the point – which I don’t have to make.
I have a job. My “employer” is the North West Social Science Doctoral Training Program. My “boss” is my PhD supervisor. My “team” is made up of brilliant academics and students. I even have a desk in an office, for goodness’ sake! I have a job. And it’s time to start treating it like one.