Exhaustion

Jonathan Laskovsky Jonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets infrequently @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


I’ve been playing squash for about 12 years.

I play quite poorly (especially given 12 years of practice), but I enjoy it. Although I don’t really have any desire to get any better than I am, I’m naturally quite competitive. So, I’m there to win even though I’m only playing with friends for fun.

Over time, I’ve found that the one advantage I have is persistence. I run down every ball. Balls that I’ve only got a 3% chance of getting to – let alone making a shot off – I’ll run down. I’ll run down a ball if it means hitting a wall, hard. If I can’t run the ball down, I’ll throw my racquet at the ball on the 1 in 1,502,402 chance that it may just bounce off the racquet and hit a winning shot (which, not surprisingly, hasn’t happened in the 12 years).

Man playing squash - the image is blurred because he is moving fast.

Blurry, by Ed Houtrust on Flickr

Inevitably, this is an incredibly tiring way to play. After four games or so, I’m usually exhausted and my advantage has pretty much been nullified. At that point, something strange starts to happen. I start to play better shots. I’m now so tired that I can’t run everything down so I need to play better shots to avoid total defeat. Remember, I’m there to win.

All of this sports malarkey leads me to this: there’s something to be said for exhaustion. For being tired, miserable, irritable, and downright sick of your grant application. Because there’s a certain amount of clarity that comes with the exhaustion.

At that point of exhaustion, you are in a similar frame of mind to your reviewer. They have read 50-odd applications and are tired of it. They are incredulous that ‘an interdisciplinary approach’ is still being touted as innovative (it isn’t). They are probably wishing they hadn’t volunteered to be a reviewer. They’re trying to fathom the incredible project that is hidden in the convoluted language and structure of grant applications because they want to still believe that it is in there.

Your exhaustion is the key here. Like the poor squash player, you can harness your exhaustion to play a better shot.

Read your grant when you are at your most tired. The worst flaws will become apparent.

Mark it up after a full day of teaching, looking after your kids, burning dinner, and a quarrel with your parents (Yes, mum, academia is a real job). Those flaws will become so glaring that you’ll find it hard to believe that you didn’t see them before. You’ll look at paragraphs that you were immensely pleased with and see convoluted, cryptic, dense writing. Sentences that flowed, satin-like, against each other in a seductive dance of brilliance, when you wrote them will now seem wrong.

You can harness this exhaustion. Sentences that don’t make sense when you’re tired and cranky can be written more simply. Innovation that doesn’t sound like innovation at 10:30pm may not be innovative at all.

I often read grants that try to cram parts of the project description into the narrative about innovation because they’ve got a great idea that they want to convey but – really – it belongs in the project description.

Look at the application in the harsh light of exhaustion. Draw all over it with red pen and make notes about how this section isn’t punchy or that your aims, background, and method all blend into one big mush. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.

This is a useful and cathartic exercise. It’s good to be self-critical, but be aware that there’s a fine line between review and despair. The flaws can be so glaring that you may want to just give it all away. Don’t.

Re-read your notes in the morning and take some (not all) of your own advice. Tseen has written about the importance of not writing angry and this is good advice. By all means, mark up your document to highlight the flaws, but don’t try to re-craft your message when you are exhausted (at least, not without several backup copies of your application). Some of your ‘exhaustion advice’ will be good, some of it will be revealing, and some of it will be unhealthy. Like I said, it’s a fine line. Read while exhausted, re-write in the morning. The dim twilight of misery will give way to a shiny dawn of insight.

Of course, the real challenge in all of this is to learn how to play that good shot (read: write a better grant application) from the beginning.

This is an important skill and one that can be learnt, like in squash, through practice and occasional helpful advice from your colleagues and research peeps. Learning to play better shots from the beginning is ultimately what is going to improve your game, but in the meantime, I’m for exhaustion.

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2 Responses to Exhaustion

  1. I think this is good advice, and not just for grant applications. I’ve been writing a manuscript for the last few months that at times, seems to read beautifully, and be a wonderfully balanced and beautiful piece of work (or at least, would be when done). A few days ago, after a particularly exhausting and emotional week, I read my dear manuscript in the light of exhaustion, and realised that there was much that was convoluted and unclear, and had too much jammed in where a simpler, more elegant approach was needed. Today, looking at the comments I wrote on my manuscript, I do see that some of my comments to myself were overly harsh, but also that I read the manuscript the way reviewers (and probably many readers) will read it. I’m now rewriting to try to make it clearer and less work for the reader to follow. I hadn’t really made the connection with the value of reading your work when exhausted until reading this post, but I think that’s one of the things that made my review of the manuscript so useful. I’d got past being kind, and reading a sentence twice or going back to check something in the methods, and was brutally honest to myself. Now I just want to learn how to play the good shot in the first place!

  2. Jonathan Laskovsky says:

    Hi Danette,
    I’m really glad you found the article helpful. I think that finding the balance between being overly harsh and actually constructive is quite tricky. That being said, re-writing in a simpler, clearer way is nearly always going to make your writing better. I’m as guilty as anyone of writing dense, convoluted copy and re-reading things I wrote months ago is painful but a great learning experience. Good luck with your manuscript!

    J

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