Written by Gus Fordyce
Motivation is something we’ve all lacked at some point, even if you are following your passion. As a PhD student studying coral reefs, battling for every inch of your career coupled with the seemingly endless stream of stories about environmental catastrophes can be quite disheartening. Frankly, I often find myself questioning whether I’m actually making a difference. Focusing so intently on one piece of the puzzle can easily lead to losing sight of the bigger picture. For me, this has only been exacerbated upon returning to work after four weeks on holiday. When you feel like a cog in a machine, what do we tell ourselves to maintain motivation?
When I started my degree less than a year ago, I was posing grand questions hoping to make waves and to change the face of coral reef science. I was feeling impatient in my desire to contribute and understandably, needed to be reeled in. After some gentle attempts to rebut my over-ambitious approach, my supervisor eventually said to me “your job is not to build a whole wall; right now you just need to add a few bricks”. This idea stuck with me.
Knowledge progresses in increments. Every paper is a brick and every question is an opportunity to craft a new one. When you consider how much we really know as a society, then you realise that this wall is massive and it was built one brick at a time. There are of course remarkable people in history who have managed to change the course of this wall by adding large chunks – Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and Isaac Newton. But did the humble Darwin embark on his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle with the aim of fundamentally changing how we view the world? If you read his notes, he was recruited by Captain Fitzroy purely for his good company and love of the natural world.
I have found that reminding myself that I’m part of something greater brings me comfort and eases the pressure to achieve. Sometimes you are in a position to complete a section of that wall – Nobel Prize winners immediately come to mind. But in the end, their course-changing discoveries are only made possible by the hours of hard work and dedication that have gone into shaping and laying down each brick before them. Feeling like another brick in the wall can be disheartening, but it collapses without all the bricks in place. Taking this perspective has taught me to celebrate the small successes of daily life, which boosts my motivation in the long term.
Studying an extremely threatened ecosystem and understanding the complexity of the issue is overwhelming, and can make you feel helpless. But every contribution made towards building the wall brings us one step closer to completing a section. As we start off 2019, after hopefully unplugging for a few weeks, remember to focus on your brick and the difference it can make.