Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

Life and work of an indy scholar part 7 - In 1933, the Flemish author Willem Elsschot published the novel Kaas, later translated into Cheese for the English market. The hero of this story, Frans Laarmans, works at the docks of Antwerp. He doesn’t like his job, so he accepts the offer of a friend of his brother’s to become a salesman in cheese.  There’s but one problem: Frans lacks all skills to sell cheese. So here’s my third lesson learned: if your cheese starts to smell dingy, you probably haven’t set your priorities straight. Don’t be like Frans, worrying about an office, a desk, a typewriter, writing paper, receipts, agents, import taxes… and all this time have your version of his Edam laying around in a storage, growing mouldy. How can you avoid your indy scholarship from turning into rotten cheese?

Independent scholarship suggests that you are financially independent. For most of us, that means finding ways to make a living. As such, indy scholarship involves some entrepreneurial skills. We have to create our own work. How not to be a Frans? Here are five causes for obsessing with the wrong undertakings followed by some advice on how to deal with them.
One, you could be overly focused on insignificant details. If you’re setting up your business you can think that you must be a 100 percent prepared before you can get started. But although some preparation is called for, you can start to grow your network before you have business cards, create your story before you have a logo, take on work before you have the most gorgeous website of the world. Setting up a business isn’t about secretively preparing a one and final offer that you suddenly reveal to the public with a big ‘tahdah’. It’s about slowly but increasingly building rapport with the world you want to offer your proposition to, carefully listening to what the problems are, engaging with the people whose problems you can solve or whose expertise is helpful to you, coming up with tentative solutions, earning the trust that you have something substantial to add with your creativity, unique perspective and professionalism. Once you’re set up, you’ll notice that the same goes for every other project you want to launch. Get out there and ‘get ready for the cheese to move’ as Spencer Johnson advised in his 1998 book Who moved my cheese? Otherwise you risk serving cheese at parties that don’t exist or are already over.
Two, there’s plain procrastination. Of the many reasons for putting off work, perfectionism and fear of failure are the two most prominent—and perhaps all too familiar for PhDs. ‘What if they find out that I’m not that smart after all?’ you may worry as a residue of the imposter syndrome you developed during your PhD. ‘What if I’m not up for this?’ ‘What if I let my client down?’ These kinds of ‘what if’ questions and self doubt can divert you from your unique qualities: your ability to analyze complexity, come up with creative insights and change perspectives on the matter at hand. These are the qualities your clients are looking and hoping for. Some clients only hire you to showcase that they had an issue investigated. Most clients, however, hire you because they genuinely need your help. And often they understand that research has its limitations. Don’t overthink your limitations and succumb to hesitance. The best way to stay away from paralysis is to act. Reprogram your mind with the adagio that the ideal time for getting things done is today-o’clock. And remember to say ‘cheese’ once in a while.
Three, you might notice that there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, but feel that perseverance is a virtue and letting go is a shame of your investments. And so you continue along your chosen path right out of the focus of your clients. Maybe your initial analysis of the market was inadequate and set you off in the wrong direction, maybe your analysis was right but the market took another course. Either way, don’t resist to changing your trail as you could find yourself selling cheese in a shoe store.
Four, possibly you teamed up with the wrong crowd. You may find a couple of soul mates who see things the way you do, share your ambitions and are pleasant to work with, but who lack the right networks and potential to start. Before you know it, you become a self-centered bunch that has lost all touch with the outside world. It can be gratifying to have some intervision with similar indy scholars and other self-employed professionals, but don’t confuse that with going into business together. This pitfall is similar to the first one, with the difference that it deepens the longer you keep convincing each other that the moon is made of cheese. Evidence suggest it isn’t. And even if it was, clients wouldn’t buy it.
Five, there’s the chance that you simply don’t feel like it. Maybe you’re just not that into Edam, is your heart more into Camembert or sausage. But instead of changing course, you find yourself playing Mahjong on your computer for days in a row. If you notice that your work doesn’t satisfy you any longer, take some time off to reorient. Try the taste of new challenges before you let your business slip through your fingers like a cheese you’re holding on to for too long. Having a rich assortment of cheeses and perhaps other snacks and some beverages makes you attractive to more clients and keeps life more adventurous for yourself as well.

The above can keep you way from your work as an entrepreneur. There’s more to this than ‘just do it’, it also involves creating a persuasive story. A story about cheese is probably easier than one about research, but without a story your offer lacks a sense of purpose. I’ll write about that some other time.

Part 6: Recognize the carnivalesque as normal life          Part 8: How to get your mojo running          All weekly blogs