Work ethic

In my third year of ungraduate study, I was in a human geographies class where I was asked to write a report on... I think it was a South American country? The fact that I don't remember is indicative of how little I cared.

I neglected the essay until the night before, at which point I sent an email to my tutor. I was granted a three week extension. I don't really know why—maybe it was because until that point I had been a good student receiving reasonable grades, and so there was no way (in the eyes of my tutor) that I could be lying about my need for an extension. I'm not even sure what excuse I gave, but I certainly wasn't worthy.

What did I do next? Did I use my newly granted three weeks to write my report, and perhaps get ahead on the next assignment for the course? No, I absolutely did not. I waited until the night before, banged out a subpar report (probably while drinking a vodka and juice), and handed it in.

I just looked up my transcript, and apparently I received an 80% (Distinction) overall for that course. I definitely didn't earn that, and when I transitioned into tertiary teaching, I neglected to ever tell my students this story. I never would've heard the end of it.

But this isn't even the worst story, or the best overall grade I received for a course in my undergradate study. That honour goes to a course called 'The English Language', which I studied in semester one of 2014. I received a 90% (High Distinction) for that course, which is outrageous.

I attended my lecture in week one, where a vaguely annoying man taught me the basics of some fundamental grammar concept that I already knew very well. I think it was the difference between a noun and a verb, or something similarly primary-school level. This was a third year level course that I was taking in the beginnig of my fourth year of university study, and it was teaching me nouns and verbs.

So, ever the arsehole student, I walked out of the lecture. When I arrived at my tutorial and sat down with some mates, they informed me that our teacher (who was late) was the same man as the lecturer. I left that classroom before he arrived, and didn't return to another lecture or tutorial for The English Language all semester. (Yeah, I was the worst.) And yet The English Language granted me the best grade I received for my entire undergraduate career. He granted me that grade. All based on some grammar and spelling tests I did, and an essay I wrote, without ever engaging with the course materials.

How did somebody with so little respect for the undergraduate system become an undergraduate lecturer and tutor herself? How did somebody who neglected assignments until the night before they were due become somebody who is now known for her aggressive efficiency and work ethic?

Once I watched a man (his name is David) paint a giant graffiti wall inside the backroom of the Coles supermarket where I worked during my undergraduate study. He was an amazing graffiti artist; the kind of guy who gets hired to paint things like 'Fresh' on concrete walls in supermarkets now because he trained for years illegally spraying nice looking walls and fences in the dead of night. After my shift ended, I watched him paint for quite some time, trying to get a better understanding of how he layered the colours on top of each other. Do you do the outlines first or last? When do you add highlights, and what colours do you use for that?

When I got home, I wanted to test out some of what I learned. I pulled out an old canvas and, because I didn't have spray paints and didn't want to buy a bunch just for this experiment, I used acrylics. I needed something to say, though. I thought maybe my name, but that was dull and self-indulgent. I chose a three word phrase: 'Get It Done'. It sounded punchy, and also like a mantra I needed to spend time painting.

I was a terrible procrastinator, but I was sick of constantly avoiding things. 'Just get it done,' I'd tell myself as I lay on the couch, eating chips and dip, watching YouTube videos, and avoiding another assignment. 'Just get it done, and then you can do whatever you like. Get it done now, so you don't have to do it later.' I knew the theory, but I needed the reminder... and then to actually do that.

I painted the phrase in pink and green and other heinous colours, and put it up on a wall in the lounge room. I angled it at the couch that I so often wasted my time on, a fluorescent beacon of guilt.

In the same year, at a festival called Voices on the Coast, I met Nick Earls. We sat down for coffee (even though I don't drink it) after the festival was over and spoke for a couple of hours about my desire to become a professional author one day. 'Enter competitions,' he said. 'Submit your work to places. Just do it. A lot. Get rejected. Do it more.'  (This is paraphrased, but you get the idea.)

One thing he said that I've carried with me since that meeting was something along the lines of, 'Never only work on one thing at a time because if you do that, you put all of your hopes into that one thing, and then if it doesn't work out, you feel crushed. Submit a story, then start working on the next story, so by the time you receive a rejection for the first, you've almost forgotten about it anyway.'

That Voices on the Coast festival was actually the first thing I ever tweeted about. My partner (both at the time and now) Dakoda recommended that I get a Twitter account and use it to network with other creative professionals. He had been using it for his games journalism networking, and had noticed there was an equally thriving community of creative writers there who I could connect with.

I was hesitant, and awkward, and posted photos of Voices on the Coast with quaint captions and less-than-useful hashtags, and never spoke about myself. (That same year, I refused to tweet about #SBSEurovision while I was watching it because I was a Professional who took herself Seriously.)

But anyway, Nick Earls had told me to try harder, and I had a Twitter now, so I was ready to be a writer.

Look, Nick Earls didn't just talk to me; he liked me.

I started making spreadsheets of places to submit my work and when their deadlines were, and I started producing more and more stories. A lot of them were bad. Honestly, most of them were. But I can't blame past-me; at this stage, I was a 21-year-old who had literally just learned how to have any sort of passion and motivation for work.

I was still neglecting my undergradate study to write and submit stories to competitions and publications. I was learning to have passion, but I absolutely didn't know how to prioritise and manage my time, or how to dedicate myself to things I didn't love. But I suddenly had a lot of deadlines in my head, I was multitasking, and I had purpose.

I was reaching a point in my undergraduate study where I wasn't even sure if I wanted to pursue high school teaching anymore (spoiler alert: I didn't) and these short story competitions didn't just need me to know the difference between a noun and a verb; I was fighting against adults with long histories and training and portfolios. I was a tiny fish in a much bigger pond and I was receiving rejection letters and it fueled me.

This was a turning point. I started to understand what I cared about and what I didn't, and how to use what I cared about to push me onwards. This fuel made me apply to have my writing featured in university publications, which took me to events where I obnoxiously told Ross Watkins—my eventual doctorate supervisor—that I was going to be his honours student, as though he didn't have a choice. (Sorry, Ross.)

I started honours, skipped it for masters, and skipped that for a doctorate. I was suddenly monstrously ambitious, to the point where I finished that doctorate of creative arts (creative writing) in two and a half years, while simultaneously forming a charity, starting to teach at university, and establishing a name for myself in the games industry that—back when I met Nick Earls—I didn't even know I wanted to be part of.

People sometimes ask me now about how I am so efficient, so motivated, so diligent, so... whatever. I think part of it comes from training my anxiety to make unanswered emails tug at my brain in an incredibly unhealthy way. I think another part of it is that I have a much better understanding now of what I find interesting and what I don't. (For example, in a battle between South American human geographies vs. representations of queer characters in traditional fairy tales, one is a clear winner). And I also think that Nick Earls took a moment to say the right thing to me at the right time, and that was worth a lot.

So when people ask me these questions, I don't really know the answer. But I try to be their Nick Earls. I take them out for coffee (although I don't have coffee anymore, because I've grown up enough to order something I actually enjoy) and I try to figure out where they're at in their career. What is their next step to reach their goals, and what gem of advice might kick them into gear? There is no secret formula for 'how to improve your work ethic' but maybe there is some specific one-on-one advice that I can give someone over coffee (etc) that might help them find the key to unlock their own motivation.

Also, does anyone have the key to my motivation? I'd like to switch it off sometimes. You know, just so I can occasionally relax, or maybe get a restful night sleep. No? Well, guess I'm stuck here then.


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