In the midst of reading the 74 journal articles prescribed to you this week, have you ever stopped to think about why you are here? In London, at LSE, doing a Masters degree?
A few weeks ago, I bought a print of this painting by Irish artist Ross Stewart. “Do it to do it, not to have done it.” I bought it because this tagline really struck a chord – as if a previously unseen yet now immediately obvious rule of human existence had just been revealed to me. However, lately I’ve been thinking again about it and I’m less convinced its wisdom is as universally applicable as it first seemed.
Take going to the dentist for example. I’m pretty sure no-one will ever go to the dentist for its intrinsic value – can you imagine being pumped up and excited in the waiting room as you leaf through decades-old copies of TIME magazine, high-fiving the dentist as she sinks a needle into your rapidly-expanding gums, and then being disconsolate when you find out your next visit isn’t for another 6 months? No, me neither.
Conversely, there are activities where the motivation is definitely ‘do it to do it’ – sex for example. Apart from perhaps anxious teenagers, people don’t tend to approach sex from the standpoint of wanting to ‘have done it’, rather they enjoy the activity in and of itself. Indeed, in this case a whole sub-sector of the pharmaceutical industry exists to help people prolong the ‘doing’ and to postpone the ‘having done it’.
Which begs the question: Where does graduate study at LSE fall on the sex-dentistry continuum of human endeavour? Are you here to do your degree, to have done it, or somewhere in between?
Doing it to have done it
As an LSE alum I know sometimes it can feel all about the qualification. Tick off this assignment, then that one, chuck in a big fat dissertation and BOOM, you’re done! Until then there is nothing else, no-one else, just you and your mission. This focus on the end-game is entirely natural but at times it can lead us to reduce our educational lives to structured assessment preparation:
“Yeah ok Prof, we get that the world is heating up and we’re all going to die unless we act now – but – is any of this going to be on the exam?”
Doing it to do it
In the rush to get to the end, it’s easy to miss all the opportunities that existed in the fleeting moment you were here at LSE. For example, at the School you are exposed to a wide range of different backgrounds, cultures and perspectives – a learning experience arguably as valuable as any on the formal curriculum. Granted, such diversity is also available in prison, but there are a lot less Nobel laureates present.
Secondly, the beauty of higher education is that you get to choose the subject you want to focus on. At LSE you get to spend a prolonged period of time with others interested in the same area, a temporary communion that offers endless potential. I know many former students who have gone on to found companies, think tanks and other organisations together sparked by ideas and conversations they had here.
Finally, there is an old saying that the friends you make at university are the friends you make for life. This is certainly true in my case, I ended up marrying one of them.
So, what’s the answer?
Graduate study at LSE is intense yes, but spending the year batting away anything or anyone devoid of examinable credit seems like foregone opportunity. Your priority must be your essays and exams, but make some time to enjoy the unique opportunities around you. Get out, meet new people, sign up for something interesting.
On reflection, I think the painting’s message is ultimately: if you want to climb a mountain, don’t focus solely on the summit, but remember to take in the scenery as you ascend. Good luck with the rest of the year and make sure you leave here with more than just a qualification.
Do it to do it and to have done it.
This guest post is written by Gerald Purcell, who manages the Programme for African Leadership at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa. He graduated with an MSc in Behavioural Science from LSE in 2015.