It started sometime around 2000-2001. I was working toward my Ph.D. in the University of Chicago's Committee on Human Development (now the Department of Comparative Human Development). I needed to submit my dissertation proposal, the final step before doing my research and writing my dissertation (in my case, a cross-cultural field-study examining gamblers' strategies and beliefs about winning). I was struggling to get into the writing groove (not for the first time). Once I sat down and got started, I would often sit for 10 or more hours without leaving my seat, but--maybe unconsciously aware that I wouldn't be stopping for a long time--getting started in the first place sometimes took days.
Luckily, a few members of my cohort were in the same position that I was. We were all struggling to get our dissertation proposals finished and we needed other people working toward that same goal to give us that extra push. We formed a small group where we essentially met together to set goals for the week and talk about what we were working on and the challenges we were facing. Two of those friends would meet with me at a university cafe once or twice a week to just sit together and write for the day. Thanks Christine, Susan, Shana, & Jocelyn! I'm not sure I could have finished my proposal without you.
Unfortunately, after the year and a half I was away doing my research, I returned back to a vastly different department, as the students who came back from field work in our department usually did. We were free now to live almost anywhere we could sit and write up our dissertation, and most of us reached that stage at different times. At this point I was ABD (All But Dissertation, meaning that I was finished with all my Ph.D. requirements except writing the dissertation itself). I looked for a group to meet with early in the morning each day, just to get me started, but I couldn't find anything in the classifieds or on Craig's List. "In the city the size of Chicago, aren't their enough people like me who work better with a social commitment to write alongside others?" I wondered.
This time, another friend in the department, one of the few who had the capacity to self-motivate year after year without external support, agreed to meet me for an early breakfast once a week at 8am near the cafe where I liked to work. Thanks Richard! As with the dissertation proposal, it's not an exaggeration to say that I don't know if I ever would have finished my dissertation without those morning breakfasts.
Until the weekly breakfasts, there seemed to be nothing that I could do from a self-motivational perspective to get myself going. Ironically for a department that seeks to understand the social and cultural factors that contribute to healthy development across the life span, Human Development provided very little toward the healthy development of it's own graduate students at the time. Of course, we were not children, and it was our responsibility to manage our own lives, and I took that to heart. My initial reaction had been to focus inward and blame myself. I just don't have enough self-discipline, I'm not cut out for this, what's wrong with me, etc. As time went on, my sense of confidence in my own ability to succeed that I brought in to graduate school declined.
What partly kept me going was a strong belief from earlier experiences that my own success and ability to work productively had much less to do with me and much more to do with the social context than the popular contemporary ideal of the self-made person would have us believe. And in this particular case, the pattern was too wide-spread to be attributable to much besides external factors. I was surrounded by fellow students--most of whom had been over-achievers until that point--who were struggling to finish. Often for years. The students who did not struggle for years were the clear exceptions, not the rule. Everything was on our shoulders, most of us were working alone without the support of a lab or a collaborator, meeting with our advisers for feedback once every couple weeks if that. We were involved in trying to finalize our own first major writing & research project, the biggest task of most of our lives. These, I suppose, are the same challenge that most new freelancers or solo-entrepreneurs face when starting their own first businesses, or most undergraduates face when writing their first big paper. The scales are different, but so are the stages in our lives. For most people, social animals that we are, that's a recipe for declining motivation, increasing self-doubt, and eventual under-achievement. We were a bunch of independent workers, thirsting for social support and some external source of motivation, feedback, evaluation, and validation, but without knowing where to find it. (As an aside, the following year, the chair of the department started a dissertation support group for long-time ABDs that saw five of the six participants finish within one year).