A long time ago, a friend translated a Brazilian poem for me called ‘The Almost’. I have no idea if it’s a famous poem in Brazil or something that barely anyone has read. I can’t remember what the poem was actually called in Portuguese. I have no idea if my friend actually translated it all correctly.
And I know I could google the answers to some of those unknowns but that’s not the point really.
The point is – I have a poem called ‘The Almost’, translated by a friend, that speaks so clearly to me, and has always spoken so clearly to me, that I carry it everywhere. It’s on my fridge. In my office. On my laptop. On several USBs.
It feels so important because it reminds me to be vulnerable. And it reminds me to be brave.
If you are vulnerable, you will always be brave.
And I don’t think enough people realise that. I think there are some people who equate vulnerability to weakness – and then stomp all over you or take you for granted. I think there are some who think they are the ones being brave or “honest” while doing the stomping.
But they don’t get it. Being vulnerable takes a strength that these stompy people may never understand. They also don’t realise that I will always get back up after any stomping – I always have. They are never as strong (or as hurtful) as they think.
As an aside, though, when did someone claiming honesty all of a sudden come to mean that are about to say something nasty? When is self-proclaimed honesty a justification to be an arsehole? At the beginning of my academic career, I made a decision to never become the kind of academic I had seen who never gave a positive comment, never supported the wonky days, who would yell or demand the impossible. I made a decision to be the kind of academic who was actually kind, or at least tried to be. I’m allowed to have wonky days too. A lot has been written about this – a beautiful piece at The Thesis Whisperer and I wrote something on it for piirusacuk just the other day.
Ask any of my students and they’ll tell you stories of the drafts I have give back to them dripping in track changes and comments, when track changes and comments were needed. Ask any of my colleagues the same thing. I’m not afraid to pull apart things that need to be pulled apart in order to make something better and stronger. I’ve picked up the pieces if my own work and done just that too. But I still have people telling me “You have to be honest” when they hand me their work and it always leaves me wondering – what do they think I’m going to do? Let them fail because I don’t want to tell them they haven’t answered the results section? Have a paper with my name on it go out with a mistake in it because I’m too scared to point it out to my colleagues?
I think though that because I always try to add something good in one of comments that people ignore everything else and think I’ve not been thorough enough. I always try for everything I read to try and find at least one positive comment to make – and sometimes it’s been really hard – sometimes the only positive comment is “well at least you’ve put a draft together to see what doesn’t quite fit together yet, let’s work together to find what does work”.
Sometimes I think because I’m not all fire-and-brimstone all the time, I’m not always taken so seriously.
But, here’s the thing – I think any writing, any research, even the hardest of sciences, is creative. We create something that didn’t exist before us and bring it to life in a paper. We are vulnerable when we do this – our creativity makes us vulnerable. We put this brand new thing in front of assessors, peer reviewers, examiners, other researchers, for them to tell us whether or not this new creation can go into the world – screaming for all its worth. We are vulnerable in this but we are brave in this as well – we trust that this new creation is worth it.
So when someone brings their work to me, I respect that this their vulnerability. Showing someone a first draft is an act of absolute bravery – and trust. I refuse to be someone who squashes the vulnerability out of them. That’s not to say I’ve never banged my head against my laptop reading someone else’s work but I’ve done that with my own stuff too – and I have no doubt other people have done that with my wonky first drafts. Or my wonky fourth drafts. So I take a step back and acknowledge the bravery and vulnerability that comes with every first draft, and I work out how to make this creation shine more brightly, in whatever form it takes.
It’s too easy to be critical of other people’s work – to stomp on it – to ignore what it takes to bring a new creation into the world. It sometimes feels frighteningly good to read someone else’s work and tear it to shreds, all the while thinking “I can do better than that”. And who doesn’t want to occasionally feel that they are good at what they do, better than someone else?
But it’s a short-lived thrill. If you give into it, you enjoy it for a moment, but someone else might be devastated.
I think sometimes the people who stomp gave into that thrill a long time ago – it’s become an addiction, their only validation.
Writing is a vulnerable thing. Research is a vulnerable thing. It is a brave thing to put your heart and soul (metaphorically but I don’t know your work, maybe tangibly as well) out into the world and see if the creation stands up on its own.
All of us would have had times when someone has tried to squash the vulnerability (and the bravery) out of us. It is hard to come back from. It is not as hard to come back from reviews that acknowledge what you have tried.
Being vulnerable and brave researchers gives us power. It makes us braver still to try new things – to discover more. And it also makes us return that recognition, to nurture the other researchers around us.
‘The Almost’ argues that the only way to see colour in our lives is to shed our fear about being vulnerable. To show people our work. To press submit. To create. If we don’t, we live in greys forever – we will never be at risk of failing or being rejected – but things will never change either. Being vulnerable opens a bright new world. You just need to be brave enough to step through the door.