Less is more?



Welcome to 2017. It’s started in an odd way hasn’t it? When the world seems topsy-turvy, I find it’s even more important to take a moment to pause. To think. To take stock, re-orient, reassess and set new goals. I hope many of you took a break. I’ve had a month off and it’s been very refreshing.

Following my sister @anitranot’s advice, I don’t make new year’s resolutions anymore. I choose a keyword to guide my actions. The year @anitranot encouraged me to choose ‘brave’ as my keyword was interesting and difficult, but ultimately worthwhile. I tried to be brave with my choice of clothes by giving up wearing black — a habit I picked up when I studied architecture two decades ago. The Year of Brave was when I started reading all the feedback on my teaching, especially the negative stuff, with a really open heart.

Being brave at work meant saying no to some things and yes to others. It meant being honest and saying what I really thought in meetings, even when I felt intimidated. This sometimes worked against my basic impulse to please. One of the downsides of trying to please at work is over promising and under delivering. I learned that people respect you more if you set clear boundaries and expectations, rather than try to be super woman.

By the end of the year I think I was certainly a better teacher and a better colleague. I’m still working on this stuff obviously, but the Year of Brave got the ball rolling.

The idea for 2017’s keyword came when I was listening to the ‘Fresh Air’ podcast by NPR. The interviewer was talking to the comic Stephen Colbert about, amongst other things, taking over the Late Show. Colbert talked about the challenge of taking over an interview style show that was already so well established.

For the first six months, Colbert struggled to live up to other people’s expectations. This attempt to please others made it difficult to find his own style of doing the show. Trying to be something he was not took a lot of effort. Eventually he couldn’t keep it up and something great happened when he stopped trying, as he puts it:

“There’s a great gift of exhaustion that comes on you from doing a show like this over and over and over again (…) you actually lose all those second thoughts. And then you’re allowed to sort of be yourself with your guests, finally. And again, about six months into the show, I went, OK. I don’t have any – I don’t have any energy left to overthink this. I just have to do what instinctually feels good to me. And every aspect of the show got better and got easier and became more like me because I didn’t have time to think about – I didn’t have the energy to think about it anymore.”

So, in the spirit of letting go a little, this year my keyword is ‘Less’.

I’m going to aim to have less stress and worry. I would like to buy less, so I can have less of a mortgage at the end of the year. I want to eat less so I can lose this last 5 kgs of my post-pregnancy weight (when your teenager is nearly a head taller, it’s time). I want to be less lazy about exercise. I’d like to work less hours, but I don’t want to achieve less, so I’ll need to look for ways to be more efficient. I want to do fewer projects, so I can spend more quality time on the ones that are important to me — especially my “How to be an academic” book for New South Press (it’s on its way Phillipa, I promise!). I want to talk less, which means I will listen more.

Of course, it’s the height of first world (white) privilege to be able to aim for less, but my hope is that by doing less, I hope to make space to give more.

I asked people on my various social media channels if they would like to what keywords people had in mind for 2017. The Facebook post ended up being viewed by over 11,000 people and got 178 reactions. There were 79 comments – a record for my Facebook page incidentally, and way too many to report here. I encourage you to have a look because there was an interesting and enlightening range of responses.

Quite a few people liked my ‘less’ idea and talked about various ways they might implement the idea in their lives. Research Voodoo blogger Katherine Firth said “live within my energy, be less wasteful of the environment, less focus on extra stuff”. @TEPORAteach wanted less second guessing of herself. My old friend Matt Kennedy picked up on the ‘less is more’ sentiment in his comment: “Less worry: more acceptance. Less sitting : more standing. Less wishing : more trying. Less screens : more sleep”.

Other people were aiming for more balance. My friend Deborah Lupton, sociologist and blogger is looking for ‘Perspective’: “don’t sweat the small stuff” (it’s always good to hear a famous and well respected scholar say they sweat small stuff — it makes me feel much better). Belinda Judd also wanted Perspective, while Wendy Balassa opted for ‘Confidence’: “Believing in me is my goal this year”. Similarly, @jodie3735 opted for ‘Focus’.

In contrast to my ‘less’ aim, @shilpa_Madan wanted ‘more’: “Be more, challenge limits, do more and get more out of life”. She wants to start the year of ‘more’ by finishing her PhD — a great idea. My friend Evonne Miller pushed the boat out further with ‘Extreme’: “Living to the extreme, engaging and enjoying each moment of leisure, friends, fun, family and work”. I also liked @rebecca_jarvis’s idea of ‘Voice’: “Finding and developing my own voice. I hear about it being a big challenge for ECRs”. I think @mmrtinio is on to something with ‘Persist’: “no matter the distractions, write for at least 30 minutes daily.” Similarly, Lussa Artemisia went with ‘Tenacity’. My sister is starting the year with three: ‘Generosity’, ‘Nuance’ and ‘New’. It will be interesting to see where those words take her. Similarly, Bec Thornton nominated Gratitude’: “I aim to appreciate everything I have and to recognise opportunities as they arise”. Joan Carlini and @grahamm44 both nominated ‘Kindness’. Joan said: “No matter what happens around me, to always respond with kindness” and Graham said: “Be kind to strangers, workmates, friends and family – but most of all yourself. I loved this – we could all do with more kindness after 2016, right? Elizabeth Chamberlain wanted ‘Community’: -“learning more together” – an aim I fully endorse. Amie O’Shea dived into 2016 by finishing her PhD and having a baby, so I think her word ‘Regrouping’ is definitely appropriate.

Other people had more unusual words. @icesheetmike went for ‘Truth’. Kate King said ‘Synergy’. Feier Hou just said ‘Job’ and Gillian Perry said ‘Help’: “I’m going to need lots of it (I like to offer what I can too). @effie_Im just wanted ‘Thesis’. And why stick to English if other languages capture your intentions better? @Roopitt decided on ‘Na’au’: “Hawaiian for wisdom/gut instinct. Trusting my gut and taking more time to ‘digest’ (reflect). she followed up with “Fortunately ‘Aaargh WTF I don’t know what I’m doing next with my life waily waily’ is too long to be a keyword…” I hope that works out for you @Roopitt!

How about you? What’s your keyword for this year and why? Do you relate to any here — how might you implement the principle in your life? I’m particulary interested in words from other languages that might express sentiments that are difficult to capture in English. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.