Originality vs. The Little Hater

The academy instills in its acolytes the importance of originality. The definition of successfully scholarship is, after all, making a NEW and significant contribution to your discipline. The focus on originality pushes knowledge further and inspires some great thinking. It encourages researchers to build on earlier knowledge to come to new conclusions and create new ideas.

But the burden of being original often feels like just that . . . a burden. Matt Inman, the writer of The Oatmeal comics, published a long coming on “making things” that, I think, resonates a lot with academics as well as creatives. He wrote: “And it’s great that no one can tell me what to write about, but I’ve found that being TOLD what to write is a lot easier than just conjuring things out of thin air.” Dude, I feel your pain.

Do you ever long for the days of the graduate seminar? When you were (pretty) free to write about what interested you, within the (somewhat flexible) parameters of the seminar theme? A nice balance between being TOLD and conjuring–that’s a rare gem.

Inman goes on to talk about inspiration as a river, not sticking to a writing schedule, and how much criticism and rejection hurt. In other words, all things to which academics can relate. When writing and teaching are going swimmingly, your job is all skittles and beer; when you’ve gotten some bad news, a ridiculous teaching evaluation, an article rejection, your job feels like a dead end. And for many academics, their job is their identity–their life. This makes negative feedback or rejection even more damaging.

I don’t want to deny the pain of rejection or feeling misunderstood or unappreciated. Those are real feelings. But often we take the criticism or feedback from others and amplify them in our own minds. This is self destructive and largely the work of what Jo VanEvery calls your “gremlins,” what Havi Brooks calls your “monsters,” and what Jay Smooth calls “the Little Hater.”

Shutting down the Little Hater can feel like a part-time, or a full-time, job sometimes. So, here are a few tips to help you out. Not all of them will work for all people all the time, but they are good starting points.

  • Think of the Little Hater as that devil on your shoulder–but talk to it. Ask it what it wants and what it’s afraid of. Chances are, it’s afraid of you getting hurt, being subject to rejection, or not meeting your own standards.
  • Tell the Little Hater that you respect their opinion but that you are free to experiment and just See. What. Happens. Then go do it!
  • Remind your inner critic of all the times they have been WRONG about the outcome of events. You defended your thesis; your article got accepted; your presentation was well received, etc.
  • Tell the Little Hater–and maybe yourself in general–to GET OVER IT. Sometimes being reminded not to take ourselves so seriously is key to getting out of a stuck spot.
  • Bring out the Little Hater’s nemesis, the Inner Champion. Give him/her equal air time, let her tell you how great you are, how great your ideas are. Let her give you permission to PLAY with your ideas creatively–even if it’s only for 15 minutes at a time–and see what happens. ​

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