I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently that I’ve started a doctorate at the University of Middlesex. I’ve wanted to do a doctorate for at least 7 years, and about once a year I would Google around and try to find something that matched my interests, and invariably failed. Then, by way of a friend of a friend, I found out about the Doctor of Professional Studies by Public Works. Essentially, I would be studying my own body of “public works” – defined widely enough to include ocean rowing voyages, TED Talks, books and blog posts – to critique them and place them in a wider intellectual context. So I would be exploring all the ideas that have caught my interest over the last 15 years. Perfect!
So here we are. I would like to share this journey with you over the coming months.
As anyone who has done a doctorate will know, the early drafts will bear little resemblance to the finished article, so please accept that fact and forgive. This may be terribly ill-advised of me to share my half-baked thoughts. There again, some of you have crossed three oceans with me, day by day, with the adventure unfolding as I went along.
I’d like to think we’re re-creating that vibe, in the context of an intellectual rather than a maritime journey.
And also, as you will know if you read my blog post the other week, I’m rather sceptical about the academic style of writing. There again, I may have to meet academia halfway and translate my thoughts into academic-ese. But for now I share in plain(ish) English. Here’s a short excerpt from what I’ve written so far.
There is a huge challenge inherent in attempting to fit one’s own life, with all of its messy interplay between rationality, intuition, and circumstance, into a tidy narrative that fits comfortably within the academic context. Inevitably, there is a certain amount of ex post facto rationalisation and interpretation, but this is a large component of the Doctorate of Professional Studies by Public Works; the bid to explain to oneself as well as to others why one has chosen to do what one did. Humans are meaning-making creatures; research has shown that the brain (or at least, the left hemisphere) prefers coherence over accuracy, and certainty over ambiguity. And so we endeavour to make meaning of our existence, even though our interpretation may not always chime with the thought processes that we were aware of at the time.
Spending extended periods, of up to five months continuously, in solitude, only exacerbates the challenge. I was the only witness to my experience, and although I have always tried to be truthful and accurate in my reporting, inevitably there is a certain amount of editing, distortion, and deletion. The blog posts that I wrote daily while at sea, along with the notes I wrote my logbooks at the end of each rowing shift, are the closest I have to original source material, and yet even they are only a very partial record of what actually took place. Countless thoughts and experiences arose and then vanished, as ephemeral as waves in an ocean.
Despite the inevitably flawed task of representing my public works as I perceived them at the time, I make no apologies for any inaccuracies or omissions. The main value in experiences is not so much what factually happened, but how we interpret and apply what transpired.
As an example of how this process operates, I would like to offer the moment when I “decided” to row across oceans, using my adventures to raise awareness of our environmental issues. The truth, as accurately as I can recall, was that for several months I had been sitting with the question of what I could do to help raise the alarm on our ecological crisis. Since my environmental epiphany, I had felt a strong sense of purpose and urgency, but had no idea how I could convert this impetus into an executable project. I knew what I wanted to achieve – raise awareness and inspire action – but couldn’t find a means to the end.
The idea to row oceans came to me in an instant, while I was on a long car drive. I would struggle to articulate where the idea came from. Those of a neuroscientific bent might suggest that, over the intervening months, my immersion in the subject and my persistent asking of the question about what I could do, had formed a network of neuronal connections that suddenly generated an insight, much as a mathematician or scientist struggling with a knotty problem might, after much perspiration, finally achieve inspiration. Or they may interpret it as emerging from the intuitive, creative, free-thinking, implicit and visual right hemisphere.
Those of a more metaphysical disposition might see it as a call to adventure. The literature is rather vague on what “call to adventure” actually means. Even Joseph Campbell, in Pathways to Bliss, wrote that “it is not always easy or possible to know by what it is that we are seized”, although the impact of receiving such a call is clear: “a person who is truly gripped by a calling, by a dedication or a belief, by a certain zeal, will sacrifice his (or her) security, personal relationships, prestige. He (or she) will give themselves entirely to their personal myth”.
But how we get from the not-knowing to the knowing remains mysterious.
The problem this presents, from the perspective of the person who has received the call, is that we know we must do the thing, while not yet fully understanding why. When life issues the call to adventure, it doesn’t send an instruction manual. So I have always struggled to answer the question of why I did what I did in terms of rowing across oceans. I can clearly see all the desires that were current in my life at that time, and how they contributed to the sense that this mission was the perfect embodiment of those desires, but I also know that this was not a left-brain exercise in putting those desires into a spreadsheet and producing an answer, or even of journaling my way to a solution. My subjective sense was that the vision arrived, perfectly formed, from somewhere outside of myself, be that the rather vague spiritual concept of “the Universe” or “Spirit”, or the Jungian collective subconscious, or somewhere/something else entirely.
Even at the time I set out across my first ocean, the Atlantic, I could still only metaphorically see a few oarstrokes ahead, and did not yet know how perfectly my adventures would fulfil all my objectives. As my adventures progressed, it seemed there was a transcendent genius at work, that could see a much bigger picture than I could, and had “known” from the outset just how brilliantly this would all work out.
Clearly, this is my interpretation. To someone who believes that what we see in the world is all there is, my narrative may seem fanciful, far-fetched, grandiose, or just plain crazy. Conversely, that person’s interpretation of what transpired in that moment of inspiration may strike me as prosaic, banal, lacklustre and humdrum.
We see the world not as it is, but as we are, to quote Anaïs Nin.