Sometimes the Wrong Path is the Right One

I spent four years of my life doing a PhD that I hated. Four years to accept that hating it meant it was the wrong path. Four years to abandon my sunk cost fallacy, and stop surviving on bread crumbs – fleeting moments of enjoyment – and an enduring, stubborn refusal to quit, because quitting makes you weak.

And yet, in many ways, quitting was my first true act of strength, the first time I surrendered my pride and actually listened. Gritting your teeth is one thing, but doing something that scares you, challenges who you believe you are, and risks regret … that’s the kind of strength I’d like to get to know better.

It was the first time I’d let myself listen to that ephemeral, spiritual voice – the one that lives in your tummy and your heart and your throat, but not in your brain – since I was a kid and too young, with the wisdom of innocence, to think I knew better than my intuition.

Because while I was proving to myself that nothing could make me quit, that I could endure any punishment (punishment I was allowing into my life, in more ways than just my academic trajectory), I was also signing off on an agreement with myself to not respect or value what was good for me. I was training myself to struggle against my own chains – the circus animal and the whip-master both.

The facts were that I thought I wanted to be a writer, and that the highest degree of education I could possess would somehow get me closer to that goal. But I often didn’t enjoy the overall process of writing, and one week of solid writing would usually take me two months of mental gymnastics to summon the engagement with my chosen craft. I tried every routine, every tactic I could find or think of, and ultimately spent significantly more time trying than I ever did succeeding (with any success I did find always, always short-lived).

Worse still, I did not enjoy rigorous academic research, because where my project existed as research for research’s sake, my heart believed in art for art’s sake – not exactly a motto that functions in a research degree, where everything needed to be academically justified.

My honest feeling was that my own research was superfluous, and although I did have love for my creative project, I detested the academic perspective that ran parallel. A doctorate thesis in the arts won’t change anything or go anywhere, so you should arguably only do it if you love it (although the vast majority will still grow to dislike it given time, so you need to be disciplined – not my strongest trait) or because you require the doctorate ticket for your career.

I didn’t fit that necessary criteria, because deep down I didn’t truly want a PhD. I thought I was self-sabotaging when all along I was telling myself exactly how I felt. But I gritted my teeth and tried to do it my way, over and over again, until my supervisors slowly ground me down, forcing me to fit the mould that every part of me was rejecting.

I was doing practice-led research, which means I had a creative artefact of work (around 80k words) and a supporting thesis (around 20k). When I quit, I had ironically managed to write two 40k drafts of my artefact, and four 5k drafts of my thesis, not including time spent on reading and research.

My chosen subject was interactive fiction: think Choose Your Own Adventure books. It was a blend of my two love affairs at the time: games and books. I researched experimental literature and children’s literature while I wrote a philosophical CYOA that explored the concepts of choice and determinism.

How peculiarly relevant this concept was to my life and learning, because while my mind was focused on interactive literary choice, I was neglecting to make a choice that would change my own life for the better.

I used to scour the internet, on occasion, looking for (what I couldn’t then identify as) people like me now: happy PhD dropouts. But I was often met with articles that still smelled faintly not of regret, but of a kind of shame. I think that shame comes from the same place which conjured my misguided belief that quitting means failing.

My unexpected conclusion on the matter is that, yes, quitting is a kind of failure, but it’s only our ego which struggles to accept the connotation of the word, and the feelings that can linger. Your gut – whatever spiritual instinct we often supress; that inner voice which knows you keener than your mind – understands that failures can be our greatest gifts.

Those years were the worst of my life, in more ways than one, and yet I’m indebted to them for the people they’ve since brought into my life, the new path I couldn’t have found prior, and for becoming a gentler human overall – to those around me, and to myself. The freedom of choice isn’t free of charge; it’s a malady that’s uniquely yours to bear. The wrong path can often be the right one, but only if we’re open enough to listen, brave enough to act, and strong enough to fail.

So here we are, less than a year after I finally showed up for myself, having applied for an internship at Busybird Publishing and finding a space that makes me happy.

The difference in my quality of life is enormous. I respect myself more, practice listening to that voice, and don’t accept or tolerate what causes me genuine discomfort. I still have some kinks to iron out, some troublesome mental habits I’ve trained in: worst of all being my inane hyper-analysis which freezes me into physical inaction. Just getting myself to my laptop can flood me with dread some days. But now, when I listen keenly and allow myself to challenge what I thought I’d always known, I embrace that I don’t want to be a writer.

Instead, I journal mindfully and consistently using fountain pens and beautiful inks, and it brings me the feeling of stillness that I so enjoy.

I’m reclaiming my love of words – my way, the way that actually feels good. The consequence of this leading me closer to a path of peace, my true life’s longing.

Choose wisely,

Skye Blake
Happy PhD Dropout

One response to “Sometimes the Wrong Path is the Right One

  1. What a beautiful piece of writing Skye. Your suffering when studying is obvious. I’ve heard or read somewhere that children who are 2-5% of the population in intelligence (high IQ) gradually lose it during their school years. This fact surprised me. My son was tested when he was young because the school said he was being disruptive in class. It turned out he was one of those 5% kids and wasn’t challenged enough. He’s still pretty smart and has a memory and recall I find staggering. My point is the kind of thing you experienced reminded me of his ordeal. Thank goodness you were able to get that monkey off you back and find something that makes you interested and happy. Your style of interviewing for the blog was brilliant as are you Skye. May you continue to be involved in things that bring out the best in you. All the best, Liz xx

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