Saturday, 9 March 2013

Get a Goat

There is a short Jewish folk tale, which my Mum used to tell. She likes to tell it to me especially in times of meltdown, crisis, exam stress... It is a story which I haven't heard in years, and which comes back to me now that I am trying to finish a PhD. Let me tell you this story now.

"There was once a poor man who had many children, and lived in a very tiny, very shabby cottage. The children screamed and fought and made noise and mess all day long. The man could get no rest there, neither night or day. In despair, he went to see the Rabbi. He said, 'Rabbi, please help. I can't stand my life anymore. I cannot live like this a day longer. Please advise me before I do something desperate.'

And the Rabbi said: 'I shall tell you exactly what you must do.' And his advice was this: 'Go to the market. Get a goat. Bring this goat into your home. And then you shall see. Now go, and do as I have told you.'

So the poor man followed this advice, and he bought a goat and took the goat home. At night, the goat had to sleep in the house, because there was nowhere else for it to go. During the day, the goat caused havoc anywhere it went. The house became smelly and the noise of the children and the goat was unbearable. The children played with it, teased it, fought over it, and, between them and the goat, they wrought mayhem on the poor man's already crowded space.

So the poor man went to the Rabbi again. 'Rabbi', he said, 'what was this advice you gave me? It hasn't helped me at all. In fact, things are even worse than before. The goat just shits everywhere, the house stinks, the children are rowdier than ever. It is absolute hell!'

And the Rabbi said calmly, 'Take away the goat.'

So the poor man went home and got rid of the goat. All of a sudden, he could not believe how nice his life was. The house no longer stank. The children were calmer - no calmer than they had been before, but much calmer than they had been while the goat was there. The man was amazed at how much space he had, and how relaxed he felt. All of a sudden, his problems did not seem so overwhelming anymore."

There. So, to all you PhD-writers: hate your PhD?... Get yourself a goat. See how much worse your life could be. Then take the goat away. And then go write some PhD.

[potential goat equivalents - anything that is a drain on your time: helping a friend move house; helping parents clear out garage; agreeing to do some work on the side; fixing Grandma's car; a bit of volunteering for the homeless; anything. I once tried my hand at a business competition for students. I thought, that will be a nice useful extra thing to do on the side. Drowning in figures and business plans, I found myself thinking - how I miss JUST having a PhD to write...]


  1. The problem for me is that I always have a goat, and once I get rid of one I invariably get another. I think it is a cunning way to avoid the PhD, because once I only have the PhD to do, I don't do it, and because this feels so uncomfortable, I quickly find myself another goat to focus on.

    Unaccountably, I'm feeling better this week. Nothing has changed except my mood, but it is a relief to not feel so bad for a bit. I hope all is well with you x

  2. yes, me too, I keep bringing new goats home with me. when finally, with a great effort, I manage to evict the goat, I marvel at how nice my calendar looks, and how easy my life will be now, with 'just the PhD' in it. but for some reason it's just never easy. i'd say don't beat yourself up - be nice to yourself, because everyone has trouble with getting on with the PhD. maybe try aiming for just three hours of PhD a day (with goats allowed in spare time)? ... it's great that you're feeling better, hold on to it and keep going! GOOD LUCK!

  3. I agree. If beating myself up/telling myself off was going to get my Phd done, I would have been finished ages ago. I am still full of resistance but I have decided that it's probably quite normal. I hope you have a good day!

  4. you know, i have met the odd PhD student who did not do this 'beating self up' thing, but just.... got on with it, and enjoyed it. how do some people do that?... it seems impossible. and yet, it exists. and technically, there is nothing these people have that the rest of us don't have. there must be a way. i live in hope. good luck everyone! xxx