Metaphors for a Nourishing Work Life + Great Books for Holiday Gifts

Finding time for writing and bringing a more positive mindset to the process are central topics in my work with clients. Two recent books offer new perspectives that I found refreshing. Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write by Helen Sword is a beautifully written book that shares insights from the author’s interviews with 100 academics from around the world. Sword uses the acronym BASE for Behavioral Habits, Artisanal Habits, Social Habits, and Emotional Habits, the four cornerstones of a productive writing practice. Sword makes clear that there is no “one size fits all” strategy, but instead offers a great variety of approaches.

I particularly appreciated Sword’s focus on finding pleasure in writing and her detailed attention to the metaphors we use to think about the process. While I have long supported clients in identifying metaphors for the overall process, Sword got me thinking about the metaphors we bring to the granular details of the work. We are likely to feel differently if we describe ourselves as “fiddling, fussing, and tinkering” with the writing, as opposed to “sharpening, polishing, and enlivening” our prose.

Another book that calls attention to the metaphors of academic work is The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. The authors push back against the corporatization of the university and encourage us to rethink whether “machine like” should be considered a positive way to describe a colleague. They argue that deep thinking and understanding are sacrificed when the focus is all about working as quickly as possible to churn out units of knowledge production (articles) that can be lines in a CV, as if creating knowledge is comparable to creating widgets in a factory. Also lost may be the ability to take pleasure in the work and to connect with colleagues and build community.

I thought about these trade offs between efficiency and deep thinking during my October visit to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where I conducted a workshop for scholars on Making the Most of Your IAS Appointment and a workshop for Institute Staff on Building Energized and Effective Work Teams. The Institute is set up to encourage scholars to follow their interests and to connect with peers from around the world, and it feels like a timeless place.

I arrived at 1 Einstein Drive in time for afternoon tea on a beautiful fall day. While sipping tea and munching on assorted treats, groups of scholars and Institute staff were engaged in conversations in the comfortable main room or out on the grounds, with not a cell phone in sight. In the evening we IMG_6663gathered in “Harry’s Bar,” a comfortable space on the second floor of the dining hall for a presentation and conversation about the history of the Hippocratic Oath and what it has to tell us about today’s debate on assisted suicide.

But even on a research fellowship, pre-tenure scholars are not free of the pressure to produce, and in my workshop senior members cautioned early career scholars to keep in mind the tenure requirements they would face when they returned to their home institutions or went on the job market. There is a dynamic tension between having the right amount of outside pressure to stay focused and get things done and having so much focus on production that innovative thinking is quashed.

That tension comes up all the time in my work with clients. Sometimes the right thing to do is to stop reading one more thing and push ahead with writing. Other times slowing down and taking more space to read deeply and broadly can lead to a breakthrough in thinking and allow the scholar to return to their project with new energy. Only you can determine the best way to navigate between the institutional imperative to produce and the value of slowing down to take the time that is needed to think, connect, and understand.

The Authors of The Slow Professor take inspiration from the slow food movement that encourages practices such as locally sourced organic ingredients that are sustainable and deeply nourishing. What ingredients are essential to your own nourishing practices? When would it feed your soul to slow down? If you can’t institute a daily departmental tea with a complete range of healthy and decadent treats, are there rituals you could organize with a few colleagues that involve time to do your own work interspersed with breaks that nourish your body and soul?

Great Books for Holiday Gifts

I love to read, and as a writer, I know how much work goes into writing a book, so I like to support authors by giving books as holiday gifts.

Book Ideas for Kids

I have some young cousins and enjoy seeking out new reading material for them, whether inspired by a segment on NPR or a find in my local bookstore. A few recent discoveries include:

I’m Just No Good at Rhyming: And Other Nonsense for 61rYd7Eb+pLMischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups written by Chris Harris and illustrated by Lane Smith is a delightful book of poetry that will be a hit with all ages.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls combines poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks with illustrations by Faith Ringgold to create a beautiful portrait of an urban neighborhood.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark written by Debbie Levy and illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley introduces young readers to the inimitable RBG.

For Teens:

For a number of years, my niece Tova Seltzer wrote a blog on young adult fiction. One of my favorites that Tova brought to my attention is How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier. Larbalestier tells the story of Charlie, a girl who isn’t even old enough to drive but has a parking fairy that helps drivers find the perfect space any time she is along for the ride. It’s not fair that her good friend has a fairy that gives her the power to find perfect clothes at rock bottom prices, and a classmate has the “every boy will like you” fairy. In addition to confronting assumptions that “the grass is always greener,” this book will have you guessing what kind of fairy you have.download

As the parents of two boys, my partner and I are always on the lookout for books that appeal to a masculine sensibility. GUYS READ edited by Jon Scieszka offers various volumes of short stories that thoroughly engaged one of our sons as a young teen. Each volume has a theme ranging from “Other Worlds” to “Funny Business” to “The Sports Pages.”

For Adults:

Although The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas addresses the heavy topic of a police shooting of an unarmed African-American teen, it is an engaging story with multidimensional characters that weaves in plenty of love and even some humor. While also a great gift for teens, your adult friends and family members shouldn’t have to miss out just because the book is marketed to young adults.

Looking for a gift in Ann Arbor’s newest independent bookstore, Literati, I picked up Marge Piercy’s most recent poetry collection Made in Detroit, and was transfixed by Piercy’s clear, evocative, and powerful voice.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather is a beautifully written classic that transports the reader to 19th Century New Mexico. A Catholic Bishop and his Vicar work among the Mexican and Native American inhabitants of the land and also encounter new white settlers including Kit Carson. This gentle story of place and friendship paints a vivid portrait of the western landscape.

The Coachs Guide, book by Rena SeltzerFor Academics:

Last but not least, is my book The Coach’s Guide for Women Professors: Who Want a Successful Career and a Well-Balanced Life. In a conversation about The Coach’s Guide, one of my clients told me “you give all your secrets away.” Giving The Coach’s Guide as a holiday gift is a great way to support the lives and careers of other members of your academic tribe.