It was a re-purposing, really. I took some cinnamon sticks out of an Ikea spice jar, covered the front of the jar in orange tape, and inscribed, with my best small-caps-permanent-marker-handwriting: GOOD IDEA JAR. And then, on small slips of paper, I wrote out over a dozen good ideas I had rattling around in my head. I folded up each slip, stuck it in the jar, screwed on the cap and set it on my bookshelf where I now see it every day.
At first, the good idea jar was just about having a place to put my good ideas. I tend to have so many of them, and almost always act on them immediately. I've been learning the advantages of letting things simmer, and sorting out which of my good ideas I should turn into great accomplishments.
This past year, I took a decent stab at the academic job market. For someone who pitched their wares without even a peer-reviewed publication at the time, and to less than a dozen top-ranked universities, the fact that I garnered two interviews and a campus visit was a remarkable coup.
But then: a little domino of rejections. The academic job market is something more than a rollercoaster, if only because its heights are so dazzling and its drops so stark; it actually makes no sense as a machine. As the fantasy evaporated, I felt my deep reservoir of confidence and enthusiasm run dry. What, exactly, was I trying to accomplish? What was I aiming for? Somehow I had wound up in the precise contortion I never thought I would find myself in: my academic position (or lack thereof) was defining my sense of capacity in the world. I was flailing without any sense of foundation--because the worst thing, so we believe, is to be an academic without the umbrella of affiliation.
For a long time, I've believed that I would not be able to enact any good ideas until I had the employment security of an academic position. I presumed that, without an academic position, I'd be overwhelmed finding work and filling CV gaps. I believed not having a position was not just a failing, but career quicksand to be avoided at all costs. Since the position was deemed the gateway for all other possibility, I did not find it necessary to engage with what my good ideas or internal professional desires might even be, beyond the very narrow vision of locating my first tenure track position.
In other words, I'd let the career tell me what my goals should be, rather than taking the time to define those goals for myself.
When I made the effort to lay out my good ideas, I realized none of them required a particular kind of academic appointment. Some relied on scholarly networks and connections, or involved scholarly publication. But many were about curious, non-academic collaboration, goals around public scholarship, or pursuing challenging, kooky research projects. The ideas that truly got me revved up did not require the "dream" appointments that had seemed so near-at-hand just a month or two prior.
I'd been thinking the job made space to have the ideas. But there's another way to play the career game: I could simply choose to be led by my ideas, and trust that everything else will follow.
By forcing myself to realize that I was full of good ideas, big and small, I was able to dismantle a vision of myself defined by whether or not I had a position. I was able to feel excited and inspired again, and eager to focus on what would bring me deep satisfaction. When the goal is simply "the position" we lose something of our native creativity, and corrupt learning opportunities into hoops to be jumped through. The position and the good ideas are two separate things; they are not actually welded together.
This is not to say I don't desire a position in academia. But I realize the best way for me to obtain a position is to not live an emotional life that feels poised on the brink of incapacity. Instead of letting the false linearity of academic ladder climbing dictate my sense of progress and accomplishment, I found it motivating to claim a right to interests, goals and drives that exist first on my own terms. No matter what position I do or don't get, that jar will always be full. From there, I can let the ideas, not the institution, to be the foundation of my aspiration.
How to Make Your Own Good Idea Jar
It's an exercise I'd encourage others to try. You just need:
- a container (glass is nice, so you can see inside it)
- a pen