On purpose, rhythm, and writing your own story

Stanford PhD candidate in linguistics explores ways to balance her academic and creative passions.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that this blog seems a bit neglected as of late, but I hope you all will excuse me for the long silences because for the first time in what I feel like is years, I am going full force after something that I want: a goal, a purpose, a reason. And reaching for that almost unattainable goal, one that makes the tips of your fingers tingle when you feel as if you can almost touch it—it feels really good.

For those of you who don’t know, over the past few years, I’ve been living something of a double life. Yes, there’s the photographer and baker (and self-taught-muddling-through-it-sort-of-but-not-really graphic designer) that you know from this blog. But I am also a scholar, a linguist, and an academic (or at the very least, I’m in school to become one). And I am very serious about both lives.

Stephanie Shih

But, the message that I kept hearing all around me was, “You can’t do both. You have to choose one. People have one passion, one career, one love, one thing to give everything they’ve got to. Pick one.” I was accused over and over again in academia for not being serious enough, for letting my attention wander (thankfully, my two advisors have never uttered these words to me, even if they may think them, and for that restraint and solidarity, I am incredibly, unspeakably grateful). In the food and photography world, I kept holding back, feeling guilty that I was doing two things, not putting my all into going where I wanted to be, into developing into the artist I wanted to fulfill in my head (my friends had an ongoing betting pool to see how long it would take for me to quit academia for photography, which was fun to joke about but wasn’t particularly helpful). This requirement that I eventually choose just ONE distressed me greatly, and I wound up wasting time not on scholarly or artistic pursuits but on stressing out, feeling completely paralyzed, that I just didn’t know which to give up and that I didn’t want to just completely carve out a whole, integral part of my identity and throw it away.

I’ve been living something of a double life

Right about when I was begrudgingly and reluctantly coming to terms with the idea that I had to make this hard choice, a few miraculous things happened. First, that workshop I was talking anxiously about in my last post? It was amazing. (I’m self-congratulating a bit because I co-organized it. :) ) Though there were the tough moments, like the moment someone asked me the hardest question that you can ask me about my dissertation work (aka: the question you hope in your heart of hearts that no one will ever ask you), everything that happened at the workshop—the good and the ugly—all reminded me again of why I love linguistics and being an academic. It affirmed my feelings that I just do. not. want to give it up, no matter what nay-sayers were telling me. And more than that, it was inspiring: the determination that I came out of that workshop with was, do everything in your power to get there.

Then, a couple days later after the workshop, I attended this panel that was organized by the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford on being a career artist. I didn’t go into it expecting much, and I had signed up for it a long time ago, before everything else had gone crazy, so I went anyways. However, I wasn’t sure how applicable the panel would be to me, until I met Pireeni Sundaralingam.

Stephanie Shih

Pireeni Sundaralingam is a poet, an accomplished artist with publications, readings, residences at museums, the whole shebang. But crucially, Sundaralingam is also a neuroscientist, a legit, trained-in-the-sciences-at-Oxford-and-worked-at-MIT-and-UCLA-and-holds-an-academic-post scientist. She, my dear readers, is TWO things at the same time. And doing amazingly at both, to boot.

Find the rhythm between the two parts and to rely on that rhythm.

I spoke one-on-one with Sundaralingam as soon as I possibly could after hearing her tell her story at the general panel. I desperately wanted to know, “How is this possible? How do you go through your life and choose BOTH, not settle on just ONE, like everyone tells you to? How do you do it!” Here’s what she told me (though my recount won’t be as eloquent):

1. Make your own story. Just because everyone else might think that there are certain paths that you must take from point A to point B, be your own pilgrim and blaze your own path. It is your story to tell and no one else’s, so have the courage to live your own story. And, Sundaralingam said, everyone behind you will thank you, because as you turn around, you’ll see that you’ve just cut out a new path from point A to point B for others that are in the same situation as you.

2. Be unapologetic. There will always be the nay-sayers. But again, don’t let them write your story for you, and don’t let them make you feel bad for writing your own story. At the end, you’ll be the one who’s won.

3. Find your rhythm. Balancing more than one passion isn’t going to be easy. It’s harder than just having one thing. But, as evidenced by Sundaralingam, it’s achievable. The key, according to Sundaralingam, is to find the rhythm between the two parts and to rely on that rhythm.

Meeting Sundaralingam and hearing her advice was invaluable to me. It’s so rare to meet people who are practicing academics and scholars but who also have something else that is an equal part of their identity. I am sure these people exist—and that there are more of them than I realize—but it’s rare to meet them and to discuss these things publicly and openly because to have two (or more!) parts of your life that you’re 110% serious about is so stigmatized. Wherever you all are, if you’re out there, I want to hear from you, because we need each other’s support!

After these few roller coaster weeks, here I am, learning to unapologetically go for what I want, the life that I want to live.

So where does this leave me? After these few roller coaster weeks, here I am, learning to unapologetically go for what I want, the life that I want to live. Of course, I haven’t found my rhythm yet! Psh, that will take years, no doubt, and patience is something that—though it doesn’t come so naturally to me—I need to remind myself to have. I hope you’ll all have patience with me and with this blog, too, as I try to figure things out. For the first time in a long while, I don’t feel paralyzed anymore. I feel as though I know what I have to do, and that Purpose (with a capital “P”) is so empowering. So, I’ll be back. The photographs and the desserts (and the sort-of-crummy-but-I’m-learning design) will be back. Just be patient. I’m working on that rhythm.