A Storytelling Serial
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Many years ago, as an adult college student, I was repeatedly asked, “What are you planning to do with your degree?”
Fair question, yet not one I knew how to answer directly. Of all the work I’d ever done, being a student was by far my favorite. I wanted to reply, “Do something? I’m supposed to do something?” Instead, I said, “I’m working on figuring that out. Right now, it’s just about the process.”
But when I completed my bachelor’s degree, I still hadn’t a clue what to do with it. I did know I keenly missed the formal-learning process. So after spending a couple of years trying to use my hard-won credential, I started a long, intensive master’s degree program.
This extended journey was heaven on earth, except for the increasingly frequent and ever-bewildering question about my plans—to which my answer remained the same.
After earning that demanding master’s degree, I felt obliged to apply it in the real world. I did my best to fit in with other new graduates in my field. Despite keeping up appearances for nearly two years, I was miserable.
Naturally, then, I returned to school. By this point I was embarrassed that I might seem a dilettante, so I pretended at an acceptable response to the relentless question about my postdegree plans. Eight delicious and too-fast years later, I added a PhD to my collection.
The evening I walked across a stage to receive my last diploma was strangely sad. More than feeling pride, I experienced the kind of letdown common after a big celebration or vacation. And although I’d received grants and graduate assistantships to offset the pricey doctoral tuition, for the first time I graduated with student loans. I figured that at my age, I’d be paying them off for the rest of my life.
No matter how bereft I felt, the time had finally come to give up the process I loved so much. For several years, I worked in higher education to at least remain in the college environment; but believe me, moving to the other side of the desk was nothing like being a student.
Throughout all my degree programs, the point never changed. It was always about the process. And if money no longer mattered, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
Does performance matter to process?
In retrospect, though, I clearly see that—among other reasons—I relished the role of a higher-ed student because I became good at it. Rather than being any type of natural ability, my skill was developed throughout the fortunate foundation I received from kindergarten through high school and then from wanting so much to do well that I poured myself into deciphering the college system and crushing my assignments.
I worked hard, and it became a continuous cycle of hard work equals success equals enjoyment equals hard work. I created my own positive reinforcement.
Would I have adored the process if my performance had remained poor? Not a chance.
And now, when writing gurus urge me to write for sheer love of the process, I remember my student days and realize that if I don’t improve as a writer, I won’t care for the process.
On the other hand, I also recall that I had to start out liking studenthood enough to want to work at improving my performance; so it’s just as true that if I don’t already enjoy the writing process, I won’t put in the effort for the kind of improvement that keeps me going.
This circular relationship of process and performance seriously complicates the glib advice to do what we love for pleasure alone.
Is product the opposite of process?
Another simplistic belief is that if we’re in it just for love of the game, that eliminates the need to consider any type of final product. But process is as intertwined with product as with performance.
Consistently engaging in a process results in a product. Words written, flowers grown, papers graded, programs coded, dissertations published, bread baked, students taught: in spite of ourselves, a concrete outcome happens when we do the work.
Of course, we can choose whether to aim for a performance that produces a quality product, which can be assessed externally (like grades) or internally (with personal standards ideally based on a fair measuring stick). But if we don’t get to a level that feels and does good, odds are we won’t continue the process.
Unless we’re disconnected from what quality looks like in the world around us, our inherent human nature prevents us from continuing a process that never gets beyond creating rubbish.
Where do potential and process connect?
In my youth, the most damning judgment an adult could impose on a child was that of not living up to their potential. I’m sure the shame of such a censure fed my initial performance standards as a student. I may not have known what I was going to do with my education, but I was sure of a moral duty to be all I could be.
For a long time, I believed I was doing just that until I looked at other students and realized many were soaring above me—publishing papers, working with teachers on special projects, winning scholarships and recognition, making my accomplishments seem small.
After a moment of guilt, I decided to stick with enjoyment of the process, knowledge I was performing the best I could in my own circumstances, and satisfaction with a product that was good, even if not the best. I readjusted my definition of potential to include the limitations influencing me and my life. Regardless of the many ways I’d ended up with constraints on what I could achieve, the hindrances were real.
Potential is not one-size-fits-all. And absolutely no one—not a teacher, a parent, a partner, a friend, a supervisor, a colleague, or a writer—has the ability to know enough about another to see all the pieces affecting the realization of promise.
Still, in the reflections that come with age, I sometimes find myself haunted by a myriad of other potentials I’ve seemingly wasted. Part of me acknowledges I could have been and done much more in many pursuits. Then my other Self suspects that perhaps I didn’t enjoy the process enough to feel motivated for the work that would have improved my performance to the point of success—or that I’m just regressing to earlier, externally imposed definitions of potential that don’t take into consideration my individuality.
Thankfully, either possibility provides reassurance that maybe I’ve always done the best I could with any process, performance, or product.
How is process useful to life, work, or writing?
Although I’ve loved my frequent life status of “in process,” perspective pushes me to caution against a narrow interpretation of that term. Even when process is the point, other things are happening beyond immediate awareness.
Engaging in an activity as a process—whether teaching, hiking, drawing, studying, writing, or any other undertaking—requires enjoyment and motivation in order to continue and improve.
Persistence and improvement feed heightened performance, and vice versa. A result of some kind is inevitable.
If process, performance, and product are true to the realities of a specific life, then potential is reached.
So yes, do it for love. And do it for the best you, and you alone, can achieve. Neither life, work, nor writing is a competition.
What have you done just because you enjoyed it? In the comments below, please feel free to share any story of a process where you realize you’ve reached the potential unique to you.
A CAREER OF WRITING