Do, do, do. I am a do-er. I have three clipboards with different To Do lists. My husband often laughs that I can’t stop “doing.” Recently, however, I paused and created a To Be list.
My To Be list outlines who and how I try to be in the world. I wrote my To Be list after the untimely death of my sister. There were ways that she lived her life that I wanted to emulate. So I curtailed the number of things that I was doing and focused on how I was being.
Creating a To Be list is important for grad students. Grad school is a time when your professional identity is developing. You are shifting from “I study history” to saying “I am a historian.” (This is one of the reasons that Grad School is Hard.) You may also feel subtle pressure to jettison or hide non-student parts of who and what you are. Many students struggle to hang on to core parts of their pre-grad school identities, or, worse yet, feel compelled to erase them. Creating a To Be list can help you to preserve the essence of yourself.
Here is my guide to writing a To Be list. The entries are the lodestars that help me steer myself and my actions. To Be lists include two categories.
Identities that I embrace. Who I am.
Qualities that I try to project. How I am.
There is a second dimension for each category.
Some are Affirmations. Identities and qualities that I already am. The essence of me. Fundamental aspects that I don’t want to lose or give up.
Others are Goals. They are what I want to be. These are aspirational items.
How To Do and To Be Lists Differ
To Be lists and To Do lists differ in these crucial ways. The boundaries blur, but instinctively, you can judge where something goes.
To Do lists are:
- Concrete and specific
- Each item can be checked off and put in the past; moved into the “accomplished” file. To Do lists can include big goals (write a dissertation, complete a complex experiment, visit Yosemite) and small discrete tasks (read an article, acquire a reagent, book a camping space).
- Updated regularly, even daily.
- Any length. Depending on how you organize them (by day, by project), they can be long (several of mine exceed a page), and have nested levels.
- Present-oriented. What do you need to do now: this day, week, month?
To Be lists are:
- Abstract, imprecise, and extensive in reach.
- Broad personal mandates that direct your behavior and shape To Do lists.
- Revised occasionally, annually perhaps.
- Concentrated on the most important half dozen or so.
- Future-oriented. Who and how will you be tomorrow, next week, next month?
To Be lists don’t encompass all of who you are. Such a list would be too long to be useful. Instead, it is a short set of that which is most important for you now—in this chapter of your life. Excluding an item does not mean that you reject that part of yourself. I pared my list down to 6 entries.
Creating Your To Be List
Creating a To Be list requires self-reflection. Think about each of the four categories as a 2×2 matrix: Identities and Qualities, each of which could be Affirmations or Goals. These 9 prompts are designed to get you started. Don’t feel like you need to answer them all!
(1) How do you describe yourself? Which roles are central to who you are? Start with professionally-related items (work is central in our culture), but choose big, capacious identities. Move beyond narrow vocational self-definition: try “researcher,” “scholar,” or “writer” rather than “grad student,” “postdoc,” or “professor.”
For many grad students “writer” or “writing” fits well on a To Be list. By contrast, writing a dissertation chapter belongs on your To Do list. Asserting the identity of writer frees you to embrace fiction, poetry, journal articles, blog posts, as well as a dissertation. Adopting the broader identity of “writer” as opposed to focusing on the goal “to write serious academic things in order to graduate and get a job” may open you to the tools and habits of mind associated with other genres as you approach your writing.
(2) Identities that are not work-related matter just as much. Who are you? Latinx, feminist, Muslim, change agent.
(3) Consider broader categories. A larger grouping may open more possibility for living your identity. Athlete instead of runner? Scientist instead of physicist?
(4) Which relationships are central in your life? Consider: Parent, spouse, sibling, friend, son.
A colleague in a many-years same-sex relationship puts “be a good wife” on her To Be list to remind her how vital her relationship is, as well as the hard fight to win the legal right to marry. Putting “good wife” on her To Be list underscores the value of family and togetherness in the face of academia’s culture of work. The entry emphasizes that her career involves the work of others, especially her wife. But another married academic claims “equal partner,” and eschews “wife.” That identity implies many of the same actions: do your share of housework and childcare, spend time together. But it emphasizes that both careers are equally important and that family work is his job as much as hers.
(5) Do some of your identities have adjectives? A reliable friend, a generous colleague, a caring daughter. These words can remind you of qualities that you embody, as well as helping you frame your identities.
(6) Which words do others use to describe your character? These reveal attributes that you want to affirm and keep. Consider traits like integrity, just, kind, trustworthy, uplifting others. Don’t fret about whether you pick nouns, verbs, or adjectives.
(7) Which characteristics that others exemplify do you seek to emulate? Pick virtues that you want to cultivate. For me it is patience, as I describe here. To inspire your thinking: Here is a To Be list for aspiring leaders. The To-Be-List blog has 100 entries. My favorites are #8 Inclusive, #23 Authentic, #26 Receptive, #55 Bold, #72 Conscientious, #96 Perseverant, and #99 Decisive.
(8) How do you spend your time? Your To Do list is a source of information. What do you always get done? What do you never get to? The priorities you already meet reveal what you value. (In his 3 Keys interview, Kenneth Gibbs called these “things that anchor you” when the going gets rough. His included his Christian faith.)
(9) How did spend your time before grad school? The activities you miss doing—that you once kept in the fore—might be identities you want to revive. For me it was “friend.” What is yours? Activist, athlete, artist.
The 9 prompts above probably led you to a long list of To Bes. That’s great as a starting point. But for your list to really guide you, you need to whittle it down. Can one word or phrase encapsulate several traits? Do a few jump out as essential? Taking something off of your list doesn’t mean it isn’t part of who and how you are. It is just slightly less important. My list has 6 items. It could easily have had a dozen or more; but I am focused on these six.
Using Your To Be List
Your To Be list is your life manifesto. Use it to guide your actions and attitude.
It informs your To Do list. To Do lists include goals and tasks of various grain sizes and immediacy. Other people’s expectations put items on your To Do list.
But your To Be list can help you prioritize your To Do’s. If “Writer” is on your To Be list, are you making time to write? Do you say “yes” to writing projects? If Writer is NOT on your list, does that give you license to say “no” or “not now” to writing projects?
Once or twice a year review your To Be list. Allow yourself to evolve. Ask yourself: Have some priorities receded into the background? Have other goals come to the fore? You are allowed to revise your list, but I urge you to keep it short.
I urge you to commit to living your To Be list. Grad school is a life stage in which you are building new identities, creating new relationships, and experimenting with different ways to be in the world. Take the time to reflect and review. Be open to new possibilities, and remain faithful to your essential core. Ask yourself: Who am I? How am I? Who do I want to be? How do I want to be? Consider the answers, develop a To Be list, and let your values guide you.
Posted: August 8, 2016