Delayed gratification and gratitude

Tags: musings, research

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One of the largest dangers or hurdles of academia that has to be faced by budding researchers is delayed gratification. You have heard the saying ‘good things come to those who wait’, but there is a larger issue at hand here: when you submit a paper for review, it will take a few months for the results to reach you. That can be a sizeable disconnect between your efforts and you being able to reap their results. You worked hard for it, but by the time you get the results, the hard work will have been (mostly) forgotten. While this can be good—in particular when you receive bad news—it can also lead to a deep-seated frustration. When you get one reject after the other, it can often seem as if your work does not matter and is not being valued. In these cases, there is no delayed gratification, but rather a delayed ‘punch in the gut’. What can we do about this? In the following, I propose a two-stage process that can lead out of this dilemma: first, you need to shift your perspective. Second, you need to cultivate gratitude.

Shifting your perspective

Instead of thinking in terms of far-away results—such as publishing a paper—think in terms of the process itself: you were able to submit the paper on time. This is already a success! I know that there is a prevalent cynicism in academia that expresses itself in statements such as ‘Yeah, I submitted the paper, for it only to be rejected anyway’. This, to me, is a natural but unhealthy way of managing expectations. Instead, let us apply some logic here:

  1. A reviewer can only review submitted papers.
  2. A reviewer may reject or accept a submitted paper.
  3. Papers that are not submitted will never be reviewed.
  4. As a consequence, submitting your paper is a necessary condition for it to be published.
  5. Therefore, submitting a paper at all is a success and should be celebrated as such!

You can apply the same reasoning to almost anything: applying to a job, applying for a grant, applying for a scholarship, etc. By participating, you are already one step ahead of the people who do not participate! And yes, there is the probability of failure, but there is also the probability of success (and by participating, you tipped the scales decidedly in your favour).

If you finished the project or the paper to best of your knowledge and to the best of your abilities, the outcome is not in your hands any more1. Thus, practice having a reserve clause in any of your endeavours. A reserve clause is a concept prevalent in some philosophies and religions. It gives credit to the fact that you cannot control everything about the world. As an analogy, consider being an excellent archer and shooting at your archery target. You control your breathing, nock an arrow, concentrate, and let loose. You did this to be best of your abilities. If at that point, a freak wind occurs and knocks over your target, causing you to miss it, would you blame yourself? Of course not! You quite literally did all you could, and the failure is not of your making. Hence, the reserve clause: whenever you do something, mentally add one of the following interjections2:

  • إِنْ شَاءَ ٱللَٰه (ʾin šāʾa llāh / inshallah): ‘God willing’ (used in the Arabic world by Muslims, Christians, and others)

  • אם ירצה השם (‘im yirtsé hashém): ‘God willing’ (used by Hebrew speakrs)

  • Deo Volente: ‘God willing’ (a Latin expression that pre-dates Christianity; often abbreviated as ‘D.V.’ in letters)

  • dum fata sinunt: ‘The fates permitting’ (an expression used by Seneca)

  • 盡人事,聽天命: Do what’s humanly possible and leave the rest to God’s/heaven’s will

  • 順其自然: Let things go their natural way

  • Que sera, sera: What will be, will be

  • Paraphrasing from the Bhagavad Gita: You have the right to work; not the fruits of your work

Depending on your personal beliefs, you can also create your own expression here. Nietzsche3, for example, used the expression amor fati (the love of Fate) to indicate an attitude that accepts certain things. Some people unfortunately consider this form of (self-)acceptance a weakness. They think that accepting certain things as inevitable makes you weak or try less hard. I beg to differ—if you gave a project your best shot and it still did not work because of an external circumstance, why should you search for the blame inside yourself? I am all for learning and improving, but you can only improve if you have some information about how to improve. You cannot ‘improve’ against a reviewer that did not read your paper. You cannot ‘improve’ against a scholarship that had too many applicants at a similar stage of your career. You cannot ‘improve’ against petty rivalries of the form ‘I do not like your adviser, so you will not get the job’. You can also view my proposal as something very strategic: by focusing less on things you cannot change, you suddenly find yourself having more time to focus on things you can change.

Cultivating gratitude

One thing that you can change is how grateful you are. Developing, or cultivating, gratitude is an important skill that will keep you afloat amidst all the noise and obstacles that may occur during your time as Ph.D. student 4. Gratitude means being able to be content, if not happy, with your circumstances, because you are where you want to be. Like a captain of a mighty ship, you might not like every day—the seas can be rough on certain days—but you definitely prefer the ship to being a common landlubber. Gratitude also means being able to recognise when people help you achieve something. Finally, gratitude will also make you able to see interactions with others as a gift from which you can learn5.

There are multiple ways for cultivating gratitude. One involves journalling with prompts, i.e. keeping a journal that asks the same questions every day. It is a good idea to add ‘What am I grateful for today?’ to the list. Ask yourself this question at least multiple times a week and—this is the important part—write down the answer somewhere. You can now go back and revisit certain periods of your life and view them through the lens of gratitude.

Ask yourself also ‘Who am I grateful for, for being in my life?’ and, if you find yourself in situations that you are not happy about but that you also cannot change, ‘What aspects can I be grateful about here?’. Over time, this will help your mind focus on the positive aspects of your life, and it will increase your calmness and serenity. Plus, if you practice this, you will also be able to relish gratitude and revel in the moment. For me, this happens particularly often when something truly nice and unexpected occurs. It can be a small thing, such as getting two coffees for the price of one, but recognising and acknowledging these moments is important.

As soon as you have become adept at this, you can also try out being a source of gratitude for other people. To paraphrase a stoic maxim: ‘People exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.’ So why not teach your fellow people some gratitude as well? Do something nice, without expecting anything in return. Be a force of good in your little corner of the world, and try to brighten the day of other people.

By the way: I am not advising you to view everything through rose-tinted glasses. Of course, not every situation is equally good. Especially in academia, there are a lot of things that can go wrong—from toxic advisers to going broke. My point about cultivating a gratitude attitude is that in most circumstances, not all aspects are equally bad. There is usually some light, interspersed with some grey, and finally topped off with some darkness in our lives. Dwelling on only the negative aspects—or even worse, actively seeking for negative aspects in a situation—is a recipe for disaster: since we are all constructing our own perspective of the world, starting out with one that presupposes calamity, danger, and darkness around every corner can make us suspicious and even lose sight of the good that we do have6. When thinking about viewing the world in these purely negative terms, I always feel reminded about the following verse from The Raven:

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

Let us all strive not to be persons whose perspective on the world can be summed up by ‘Nevermore’! As a parting thought, let me suggest also that you create a file or folder on your computer in which you collect things about which you can be grateful, things that spark some joy: a good review, a good comment, a sweet e-mail—take it all and put it there. Visit it from time to time and see the impact that you have on other people, it will make it easier to see yourself through the eyes of others and re-evaluate your perception of your situation.

Until next time, enjoy your research and cultivate gratitude!

Update (2020-03-10): Added several additional interjections suggested by Hacker News comments. Thank you very much!

  1. This is true in particular for publications. There is always a degree of variance when submitting a paper to a conference or a journal. Everyone knows it, few talk openly about it. I am not criticising the whole reviewing system here—my thoughts on that are far too irrelevant to be of use—but it often helps to consider that the reviewing load is exceedingly high, at least in machine learning. Even the pillars of our community get papers rejected. Why should it be any different for you and me? ↩︎

  2. I have the utmost respect for the different religions and worldviews presented in this list. The ordering does not imply a value judgement of my part. Moreover, I am not too familiar with non-European philosophies and religions. Feel free to send me alternative suggestions for this list! ↩︎

  3. I do not endorse his philosophy but I wanted to add a relatively secular expression to the mix above. ↩︎

  4. And well beyond it. The obstacles never stop coming, they only change their shape. ↩︎

  5. I have been accused of being starry-eyed when it comes to my interactions with others. What few people realise, though, is that even interactions with unpleasant people can be a gift: they could teach you, for example, the value of civility, or the value of patience, or the value of silence. If you are attentive and wise, you can consider every such interaction as an opportunity. ↩︎

  6. The people who subscribe to this view of negativity always strike me as chronic complainers, never being satisfied with anything: their paper is accepted, but of course, there are better papers out there. Their partner is smart, funny, and attractive, but of course there are smarter, funnier, and more attractive people somewhere else. They have a good salary, but of course, there are richer people on the world. There is no pleasing some people, so we should all endeavour not to be those people. ↩︎