A reflection on the opportunity cost of nearby hills, or, the fear of squandering chances

Vintage Ordnance Survey map of Beinn Eighe hills, Torridon, Scotland

I’ve been thinking about uncertainty a lot recently.

I’m a mature student. I came back to academic study at 38, after several years spent working in various roles in the creative and cultural industries. I came back because I felt that I was at a crossroads, sure that what I’d been doing wasn’t moving me forward, but at the same time feeling unsure about what possibilities might lie ahead. One thing led to another and I’m now in the fourth year of a PhD, at 44. I’m in the ‘writing up’ phase, an innocuous term for what could reasonably be likened to that process whereby rough stones are turned and rolled again and again until they become smooth, polished, perfected versions of themselves. 

I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ as a side-book1 as I ponder uncertainty within the making process. I’m researching my own experiences in amateur craft classes, rifling through notes and photographs, holding up artefacts to observe the traces of their making, and hauling forth the self that attended the classes, with all the attendant baggage of previous creative experience. This, and thinking about Tim Ingold’s ideas about ‘wayfaring’, that is, finding a way through, is all leading me to think about the path I’ve travelled through the doctoral experience thus far. I’ve scaled various peaks on my journey, and a fair few marshy bogs of the sort where one’s foot can suddenly give way into a stinking heavy mass of peat – what the Thesis Whisperer aptly describes as the ‘Valley of Shit’. For the first time in months I feel as if I’m on some sort of reasonably clear path at the moment, even if it’s only a path whose bearings are drawn from what Ingold describes as ‘attentionality’2. I can’t yet see the summit, but if I can trust the sketched map I carry in my head, I should reach it at some point in the middle of 2021. 

As much as I’m looking forward, placing each word in front of the last, I’m also trying to look around and to remember to look back too, at where I’ve come from (the best views often being the ones behind you). As I reflect on the landscape, thinking about uncertainty, I consider the journey I’ve undertaken, wondering about those cliched paths not taken. This is the thing about sitting with uncertainty; it is sometimes exhilarating, but is more often uncomfortable and destabilising. Have I done what I set out to do? Should I be creating more opportunities – to extend the metaphor, should I be bagging those adjacent peaks whose summits require barely any loss of height? With six months (or thereabouts) of funding left, and an uncertain future ahead in 2021, is it wisest to stride forward, head down, in pursuit of that final summit, or should I take a moment to grab the chances that still being in this rare position might afford a person? 

1 These are the books I read in bed at night to distract myself from the books I read at my desk during the day. 

2 Ingold, T., 2015. The Life of Lines. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge. p.133.

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