The Re-Do — 2021 in Review
We expected a year of new beginnings. That's not what we got.
There’s an event in my Google Calendar—and for just about anything that happens in my life, I have a calendar event to prove it—which reads, and I quote, “PPPUUUUPPPPPPPPYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” It’s an all-day event, blocked out for the whole of December 28, 2020. On that day, Haily and I took the train from Oxford to Manchester, and a bus from Manchester to just outside the town of Burnley. We found ourselves at a lonely bus stop in the cold north of England. It felt like being dropped off at the outer edge of the solar system, as if Pluto were just over the next rolling hill. The only landmarks of note were our breeder’s kennel, a pub, and the kind of tidy, thigh-height rock wall used in this part of the world to delineate one field from another. That’s where we picked up Zora.
Looking back, I view this scene with a kind of symbolic weight. The lonely bus stop in the cold north of England? That’s the bleakness of 2020. The prospect of coming home with a new bundle of fuzz and teeth and joy? That’s the potential of 2021, a chance to rebound, to begin anew. That’s what 2021 was meant to represent: a Great Moving-on. We were going to set aside whatever it was that happened in 2020, and get back to the way things were, or even (and the convention is to capitalize this phrase as an emphasis on its wide-eyed optimism) to Build Back Better. That’s what 2021 was supposed to be.
But here’s another scene with some symbolic heft for you to consider. The Google results of my search for “Christmas Lockdown 2021”:
You may recall that in Great Britain’s holiday season of 2020 it was adjudged that Covid would postpone its threat to the nation until after December 25. Which would have been rather considerate of the virus had it actually followed through on the promise. Rather, this marked the inaugural instance of Britain’s annual Boxing Day Lockdown. We spent the next four months inside, unable to participate meaningfully in any activities taking place in the outside world. Here’s another calendar event for you: The next time I went to a restaurant post-Boxing Day Lockdown was—and I’m not even shitting you—the 13th of April. The name of the event was (another direct quote) “PIES AND FRIENDS AND DRINKING IN PUBLIC OMGGG”.
To put a bit more quantitative face to what this looks like, here is a plot of the number of new Covid cases in Oxford, from the beginning of the pandemic until now:
I say all this to make a specific point. Looking back on it now, the year 2021 looked an awful lot like the year 2020. The situation we find ourselves in now is breathtakingly similar to the situation we found ourselves in exactly one year ago.
This year was not one of new beginnings. It was a do-over. It was the World presenting us with what was essentially the year 2020 again and saying, “Maybe you’d like another shot.”
Thanks, World. But twice is enough.
The would-be optimism of 2021 didn’t last long for me. As I wrote in my review of “The Long 2020”—please note the publication date of June 11, 2021—my year kicked off with a big PhD milestone. It is called the “Transfer of Status.” The purpose of one’s transfer is to determine whether a student has successfully passed the milestone of having done something. The general sentiment around the whole process is that anything more than nothing will suffice. This marks the passage between a “probationary PhD student” (which it must be said makes it sound as if the student has recently been released from an extended stint of incarceration) to the still-subhuman designation of “PhD student.” But evidently I had yet to reach escape velocity from the gravitation pull of inactivity. I failed my Transfer.
This is when I began engaging in a behavior that was by all accounts strange and unprecedented. I began to work on my PhD. And guess what. It really made a difference.
My Transfer of Status was held oon January 13, 2021. (Event title: the appropriately subdued “Transfer viva”; viva is the Oxonian term for an oral assessment or presentation.) This was quite literally the very last day on which an Oxford PhD student of my cohort was allowed to do their transfer assessment, as it marked the last day before the beginning of their fourth term. Failing it, by definition, sets one back at least one additional term, since you’ve now bought yourself three or so extra months to get to the point everyone else is already expected to be. So that was January 2021.
Fast forward to now. I’m happy to announce that another calendar event, set for January 11, 2022, marked with cautious enthusiasm: “Confirmation viva!!” If the Transfer of Status signals that one’s PhD work has officially begun, the Confirmation of Status signals that it is officially wrapping up. You transcend the existence of a mere “PhD Student” to wield the intellectual gravitas of being a PhD Candidate. Once your Status is Confirmed, you are, at a first approximation, ABD: All-But-Dissertation.
Even more astoundingly, my dissertation is also ABD—all but done. As we speak, I am putting together the final empirical chapter of my thesis, which I expect to finish before the first of the year. Not to say this puts a final bow on things, but I will have completed full drafts of the chapters presenting all the work I said I would do for my PhD. That gives me six months to incorporate the feedback from my advisors, make some revisions, and perhaps run a couple follow-up studies if anything interesting comes to mind. Slap the Intro and Conclusion chapters on there and—bada-bing, bada-boom—that’s a dissertation.
So yeah, for those of your keeping score, that means I completed my PhD in what is essentially a single year.
Well, that’s a story for another time. But for now I’ll just say that it involved a dramatic reduction in ambition from the kind of work I wanted to do coming into grad school to the kind of work that I could successfully plow through in twelve months.
And yet—I must say that there’s something which feels profoundly inappropriate about the prospect of completing one’s PhD. The PhD is supposed to be forever on the horizon, an immense boulder to push up a mountain you will never quite get to the top of. I have never lived a life where the promise of PhDhood is not looming in the dimly visible purview of my potential: what I am not at present but could one day become. I think that’s what feels odd about it. I fulfilled my potential, and all I got was this lousy degree.
So I find myself facing my impending graduation armed with what is more or less the same realization as when I failed my transfer of status. Well, I guess now I actually have to do something.
Anyway, what I intended to convey in covering all this was that there something quintessentially 2021 about the whole thing. I came into 2021 thinking this was going be my year to make Big Moves. It was when I was finally going to bust out of the paradigm I’d been in up to that point, and to do the things I finally wanted to do. Part of why I failed my Transfer, after all, was that my research “plan” wasn’t appropriately scoped for a PhD project; it more resembled a reconceptualization of how psychology in general should be done, rather than a plan for actually doing psychology.
In other words, 2021 didn’t give me an opportunity to do something new at all. It gave me a chance to finish what I’d already started.
It wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that I started to think of the year in these terms. I was interviewing an author I admire—his name is Brian Christian; his most recent book is The Alignment Problem—for my podcast. Brian was my first repeat guest for the show, and we were doing a little personal catch-up before we began the interview. He told me that for him, 2021 was (contrary to expectations) a year of wrapping-up projects rather than beginning new ones. The more I thought about it, the more I felt the same. Perhaps it’s been a little like that for all of us.
And you know what else about 2021 mirrors 2020? I find myself going into the new year with the exact same wide-eyed optimism that I did the year before. I can’t help but think this is going to be the year. To quote the title of a collection of one my favorite essayists, Tim Krieder: We Learn Nothing.
There’s something else that’s been on my mind of late, something that perhaps goes a bit deeper. To put it simply: I’ve begun to feel recently like I’ve stopped improving as a person. I feel static, like my intrapersonal growth has slowed to a rate that’s almost imperceptible. Back in my early twenties, the growth was palpable. Now, in my late twenties, I’m simply going on stage to do the performance of “me”—a character who, let’s be honest, hasn’t developed much over the last couple seasons of the show.
To some extent, this is natural. I think it’s a part of getting older, of being an adult. I mentioned Tim Krieder’s essays, and in that collection he presents this great term, which I’ve always resonated with. It’s a state of maturity he calls “retarded adolescence.” In theory, at certain age (let’s say post-college) one moves beyond adolescence to become a fully-fledged adult, capable of doing all the things 1950s America set out for us to do: get married, buy a house, save for retirement, hold down a real job. But just because you’re the age of a grown-ass adulthood doesn’t mean you’ve left behind the trappings of adolescence. I’ve been out of college for a while now, and I still don’t have a real job. I’m a graduate student. I’m still hoping to be a writer when I grow up. “Self-sufficient” is not a label I’d readily apply to myself. Yet the reason I’ve always held this idea of “retarded adolescence” as an important, if tongue-in-cheek, part of my own internal sense of identity is that there is at least one thing that’s glorious about adolescence: it is the time in life of greatest learning, of the greatest growth. The longer you hold onto adolescence, the longer you hold onto that growth.
But life—adult life, anyway—asks of you not to develop, but to produce. When you’re an adolescent (for most people, in college) you come across ideas that have the power to change the way you think about things. Somewhere along the line, I grew dependent on that feeling. Now, like an addict, I chase it. And I chased it all the way into graduate school. Yet as I become more familiar with my home field of psychology and cognitive science, I find it harder and harder to discover something which can incite that kind of revolutionary change in perspective. If I want my fix, I have to go further afield—either to a different academic discipline or to what people are doing outside academia.
The problem is that this isn’t what a PhD asks you to do. It doesn’t give a shit whether you’ve read up on the scholarly canon of another discipline. It requires of you to make a specific contribution to a narrow lane of scholarly pursuit. It’s a very adult thing to require of someone. It bears little resemblance to the vague, adolescent dictum of undergraduate: educate thyself.
And so in my effort to actually do something this year (and in my successful attainment of that goal) I felt like I lost a bit of the part of myself I like most. That’s the part of me that’s curious and open and excited about coming across something new and willing to rethink long-held assumptions and—most importantly—the part of me that loves to come up with crack-pot theories about the world and how it might in fact work. I’m less enthusiastic, more jaded. More productive, but also more rigid. Put another way, this is the downside of optimization. As we optimize for a particular outcome, we forfeit the potential of arriving at outcomes at which we did not set out to arrive.
Yet, the more I think about this, the more it feels like a new opportunity for growth, albeit growth of a different kind. Not the flagrant and dramatic growth which being a college student affords. Honestly, I don’t yet know how to describe what this kind of growth would look like. But I’ll tell you what. One thing I’m looking forward to is being good at something. I mean, really good. Like mastery. That’s not something one gets in one’s twenties. You can do stuff well. But you’re not completely there yet. You have a ways to go. And I’m really, sincerely looking forward to doing less bouncing around and more hitting my stride.
Nonetheless, it’s important to me to figure out how to balance my newfound ability to produce with my long-standing devotion to openness. What exactly will that look like? I’m not sure yet. But I’ll be sure to let you know when it becomes apparent.
And so I find myself standing on the precipice of 2022 with a sense of excitement about a new phase—a post-PhD phase, one which resembles something closer to legitimate adulthood. With any luck, I’ll be coasting into the finish line of graduate school. This was my intention. Because I want to start ramping down my academic activities and ramping up the activities I hope will become my next step. I do not plan (as is customary) to do a post-doc. Nor do I intend to pursue academia more generally. Anyone who has followed my work will be familiar with my reasoning behind this decision. Rather, I’d like to have a go at making my living from writing.
I’ll spare you the details of the plan, but the upshot is that I’d like to build up enough moment in my writing, podcasting, etc. that I could make a claim toward calling it a viable career next step without raising eyebrows or eliciting chuckles. Well, actually—I don’t properly give a shit about eyebrows or chuckles. It’s more likely my own vanity, my need to have something that I can point to and say “impressive, huh?” Whether or not people are actually impressed doesn’t matter. I just want to be able to point.
And what I’d really like to be able to point at is a book contract. This is something I’ve been working toward in various guises for last five years. It was one of my goals to sell an idea for a book before I leave graduate school. This is undoubtedly a reach goal—it always has been. It is not a common thing for a graduate student to do. But it has been done before, and it’s something I’ve been working towards.
There’s a possibility that I’ll still be able to hit that target. I currently have a proposal out on submission at this very moment. That means it’s on the desk of acquiring editors at major publishing houses, and that they’ll send a note to my agent when they’ve had a chance to read it after the first of the year. We’ll have to wait and see what they say.
In the meantime, I’m working from the assumption that the contract won’t come through. I’m asking myself: What else can I do to develop my platform as a writer? I’ve got a bunch of ideas, and getting them out into the world will be my big push for 2022. I’ve been doing my podcast for over two years now (with more than 75 episodes, many of which feature my intellectual heroes) as well as experimenting with writing in different formats, from freelance essays to this newsletter. I appreciate you following along through all that so far, as I play around with what works for me and what doesn’t. Ultimately, I’m trying to take the same mindset with me into 2022 for my writing that I had with my research after failing my transfer: okay, it’s now or never. Let’s make this thing happen.
It’s something I’m really excited about, and I hope you’ll continue to follow along with my work. Thanks for your support. I really do appreciate it. And I know I was making fun of the baseless optimism I (and others) have going into 2021, and now take with us into 2022. But seriously, though. I mean it.
This is going to be our year.
P.S., The dog, by the way, is larger now. Here’s a recent pic:
Also, my general plan with the newsletter is reinstate its dissemination weekly on Fridays. They’ll be short (shorter than this one) but will mostly center around a similar kind of personal anecdote/introspection—though probably less here’s-the-arc-of-my-life-overall and more about specific experiences. Single calendar events, if you will. I’ll also be turning on paid subscriptions. I’ll say more about what this entails in the coming weeks but if you’re interested in receiving more of my content or in supporting the content I already make, you’ll be able to upgrade your subscription via this Substack.
In the meantime, I’d like to extend my best wishes to you and your loved ones.
Happy New Year,