Given all that’s happened this year, I found myself coming back to this question more often than I had in past years — why does any of what I do matter?
I am an environmental sociologist and I spend most of my time collecting and analysing data on public and expert perceptions of risk of climate change and nuclear energy. Then COVID-19 happened and people starting rushing to stock up on instant noodles and toilet paper. Fake news and conspiracy theories started spreading faster than the virus and everyone started calling out everyone on social media. Photos of random strangers wearing the mask the wrong way or not wearing one were going viral on Facebook a-washed with nasty comments.
Suddenly, we were all trolls. We were all pointing the finger at each other. We were tearing each other apart, even among friends. Our social fabric was unravelling before our eyes and I had no solutions, only descriptions. As a sociologist, this is one of my great frustrations — that we are very good at describing a problem in great detail, but have relatively little to offer in solutions.
THE GREAT DISCONNECT
I found myself wondering why does any of what I do matter if I have no answers to this social crisis? Then again, why do I worry about finding answers and solutions to this social crisis if it will not count towards my K.P.I (Key Performance Indicators) at the end of the year?
As academics, we are naturally bound by a certain sense of responsibility to an ethos that is greater than ourselves, the institutions we serve and the evaluation matrices placed upon us. Whether it is about protecting an endangered species or finding answers to a more harmonious co-existence between modern life and the environment, we are driven by a passion for our subject. But that doesn’t always resonate with the big issues of our time. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t always get us the grants we need to progress in our career.
THE PRAGMATIST AND THE IDEALIST
So I’ve come to learn the need for balance. There is a time to be a pragmatist, and a time to be an idealist. We cannot cling only to our passion — we will lose perspective of what is important to real people, real lives and real solutions that could make a real difference. But we cannot also only be pragmatists — we will lose sight of what is important in life, purpose in our work and a sense of optimism that the future will not just be more of the same.
This virus has given me pause to think about what any of what I do matters, and sometimes, to let things go.
TECHNIQUES FOR FINDING PERSPECTIVE
It is good practice to stop and take stock regularly — and don’t wait till the end of the year to do it! It’s ok to realise that some of what you’ve slogged so hard for mattered very little in the larger scheme of things. Maybe they don’t matter now, but will make a big difference later. Maybe they’ll never matter at all but you’ve learnt something along the way — at the very least to be more selective and strategic. Whatever the case, it’s good practice for your own sense of well-being and direction to step outside yourself every now and to find perspective. Here are some questions I’ve found helpful for myself:
- Does this particular battle I’m fighting matter?
- Is this problem important right now or can it wait?
- Is what I’m doing (still) contributing to my happiness? If not, what has changed? What can I change?
- What are the things I can fix and what are those I cannot?
- What can I do to be in a better position to fix the things I can’t fix right now at a later stage?
I will revisit this topic of “Finding Perspective” as I go along. But I’d love to hear from you if you have found other techniques useful for finding perspective.