Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tip #6 - Forget about yourself

I touched on this in the last tip post about getting your social on, but wanted to expand the thought here.

Sometimes we get so caught up in wallowing in our PhD Depression that we can't get out. Doing something for others every once in a while is a good way to appreciate what you have and get out of your own self pity. It's also an important part of society and being a contributing human being, but this blog isn't about how to improve the world, so I'll leave that discussion for the more noble. Try some of this out and see if your life doesn't get a little sunnier.

  • Technical Volunteer Work - Give back what so few others have the ability to: your immense knowledge of your subject.

    • Teaching - I know it's required and possibly a pain in your ass, but just remember that you have the chance to shape the lives of these students. Channel your favorite teacher/professor and give them everything you've got.

    • Extra teaching - This isn't your required, deal with snotty college students who want a good grade, teaching. This is reaching out to the community around you and/or those in need. Find a group in your area who has a program set up with local schools or set up your own summer class for disadvantaged youths (I bet you could drum up support in your department, most Universities are dedicated to giving back for altruistic or other reasons). If those seem like too much commitment, just sign up with your school to be a tutor for a few hours a week.

    • Contribute your skill to an organization - Not by teaching necessarily, but by doing whatever that skill does. If you're an English PhD, then write/edit their handouts, if you're a Finance PhD then balance their books. Again, you may feel dumb sometimes, but you have more knowledge in one subject that almost anyone you'd meet on the street, so put it to use and you might even get some of the old fashion "oohs" and "aaahs" that people used to give you for being so smart before you joined the PhD program and everyone was smarter.

  • Nontechnical volunteer work - There's so much you can do, here's some that appeal to me:

    • Soup kitchen - My favorite thing about these is you often don't have to make a huge commitment, just call the day you want to come and see if they need anyone.

    • Participate in a walk for a cause - Just collect donations and get your workout in! Double the PhD Depression fighting duty. So easy, one day commitment plus one mass email.

    • Be a big brother/sister - This is definitely something you need to commit to, but this is the ultimate stop-being-such-a-self-absorbed-jerk-and-realize-how-lucky-you-are situation. Think of all the opportunity you were given that these kids don't have. Honor whomever was your role model by passing on that gift to one of these kids.

    • Build a house - There's something so great about getting out there and getting physical. See your work come to life by working with Habitat for Humanity or whatever organization is prominent in your area, maybe it will inspire your "real" work to come to life.

    • Look up the numerous opportunities that your school offers - Like I said, I just named a few that appeal to me. A list of the opportunities available in your area should be available on your school's website. Or if you have a favorite way to give back, post it here for others to see.

  • If you feel you can't spare one minute to do community service, how about just try to make the lives of those around you a little nicer

    • Smile - It's such simple advice that it's cliche. The act of smiling not only makes you experience a mood lift*, but can be the simplest ray of sunlight in someone's cloudy day. I don't think there's a better 1-2 combo for improving your mood while doing good.

    • Reply to an email just to say thank you - There's probably certain people in your life that seem like they're there to serve you - your parents, the IT department, administrators of various things, etc. But even if it is what they're getting paid for, it doesn't mean you shouldn't extend the common courtesy of thanking them for their work. Although someone probably told you while you were growing up to say "thank you", I bet no one ever told you "now reply 'thank you' in an email" and thus most people don't. So now I'm telling you. Don't forget to thank the people that make your difficult life a little easier, whether you're communicating in person or electronically.

    • Acknowledge important moments for people - There's nothing lonelier than having a big moment in life that no one acknowledges. I used to be one of those people who forgot birthdays, never sent cards and thought saying "I'm sorry for your loss" was soo awkward that it was better not to say anything at all. It's not true. A small thought isn't meaningless or trivial, it's thoughtful and can make a person's day. And if it doesn't than no harm done. It will also pay dividends as those people whose special days you remember will be more likely to remember yours. Use facebook (so easy, after checking out today's birthdays or your newsfeed just jump on the wall and say "happy birthday!", "congrats!", whatever), google calender (program the calender to send you email reminders and go straight from that to email), hallmark reminders (free, then send an e-card), or whatever works for you.

    • Be a nice person - This is everything I've just said + anything I forgot. Be polite, be thoughtful, be warm, be appreciative, be generous, be forgiving. Unless you develop the cure to Cancer (and maybe even if you do) you will never do anything to more important, more rewarding, or more influencial than interact with other humans. Think of it as paying it forward. Other than the immediate rewards of just being a good happy person with good relationships, if you can make those around you happy then maybe they can make others happy, all the way around the world until it comes back to you as a nicer advisor or a wonderful and enthusiastic dissertation committee.

*When searching for a reference to the studies that demonstrate the smile-happiness correlation, I came across this great blog article called Smiling Makes you Happy. The author, I found, is an entertaining and informative writer, so you should check out that link. Also, I love that he has a book called The No Asshole Rule - the name amuses the 10 year old in me.