The other night, I made a good idea jar.
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.
But the good idea jar also re-scripted a way of thinking I'd unknowingly trapped myself within.
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:
I've been reading Peter Lunenfeld's "The Secret War Between Uploading and Downloading" hard on the heels of finishing Mass Effect 3. For a game that made me cry in pure affective overload at the end of Mass Effect 2, the end of ME3 made my cry out, in complete disappointment. I'm filtering some of my thoughts on ME3 through the Lunenfeld's interest in pushing for "meaningful downloading" and a "mindful uploading" culture.
The Mass Effect franchise—if played for reasons other than just killing aliens—is an exercise in scenario visualization. Faced with the possible extinction of the entire galaxy, Commander Shepard is called upon to act in an apocalyptic circumstance the proportions of which cannot be visualized--even the imagination strains to conceptualize all organic life winking out. The game toggles deftly between the various heartstrings that must be pulled to wed you to this effort—from the individual to the social, the game excels at presenting different scales of attachment that help you stretch your empathy outward, unfurl a hope for a future that motivates your action.
Closest to the level of the individual, you have your lover who provides an emotional foil for Shepard's inner thoughts. Yet your investments unfold beyond your romantic dyad, from the crew, each with their private demons, to the people of the Citadel who need your aid in both personal requests and species-based dilemmas, to whole planets, fleets, and biological ecosystems. You understand that your actions are consequential, always moving outward, and you are asked to consider the potential consequences of those decisions, how those choices alter the fragile scenario that you are trying to stabilize. Who will help you, and who will turn into an Achilles heel? How can you always work toward the best possible outcome for the largest possible beings? What guides your ethics—self-preservation, a rigid code of honor, case-by-case pragmatics? A good gamer, a mindful gamer, is thoughtful about these decisions, and recons with them.
The grand failure of ME3's ending is that the power of what the platform was able to do ceased to matter. Suddenly Shepard is dropped into a situation over which he/she has no ability to foresee. The grand universe scenario that you've been visualizing, managing and calibrating doesn't matter. All your careful planning, all your thoughtful choices, bottom out to a numbers game, a hollow stand-in for the intellectual and ethical work and exploration we filled Shepard up with for 90+ hours over the course of the trilogy. The game works powerfully as a simulation of leadership development, a playground for trying out responses on how to treat others, a way of thinking from the micro to the macro, and how these scales of behavior are latched into each other--how this thing over here effects that thing over there. That's the reality of living in our world—that our actions have consequences that are always spreading out beyond us, slipping away from us, operating in systems of power we can't totally comprehend. Complexity. That's some of what Mass Effect got at. That's why it felt particularly alive. When that complexity is removed, when suddenly the whole world is just the machination of a never-before-seen godchild/deus ex machina, we've traded a complex systems model for a top-down hierarchy model. It's this flip, wherein we are removed from meaningful choice--which was in no way keeping with the structure of the game--that feels most insulting, saddening, and disingenuous to a game that helped me imagine what I might want from a future I could cooperate in.