Creeping ennui and how to beat it

By Thomas Hayden

I remember the day I first felt like I could nail the short science news story. It's the most fundamental of science writing jobs, really: turning new research papers into accurate, engaging news articles. But it was about four years into my science-writing career before I felt like I could do it unflappably, without any trace of anxiety that I might not be able to get the sources I needed, or explain the science just right, or make it interesting. Without any trace of The Fear, in other words. And for about 10 minutes, that feeling of mastery was exhilarating. Then I really, really never wanted to do one of those stories again.

It always sneaks up on you when it comes: Like a cold that waits for the holidays, it attacks during periods of calm rather than times of stress and combat. Many first notice it as periods of intense listlessness. Other symptoms may include renewed passion for long-abandoned hobbies or even housework — and not that frantic, must-avoid-looming-deadline kind of housework, but the feeling that folding tea towels and sorting out the sock drawer is actually more interesting than the unfinished story you would have been excited to work on just a year or two earlier.

It might even show a more playful face — at first. Should you find yourself taking a bet from the copy desk that you can't get the word "capybara" into your magazine or using the first letter of each paragraph in a profile to spell out what you really think of your subject, well, you've got it: Career ennui.

It happens to all writers from time to time — the kind of generalized dissatisfaction that sucks the fun and interest out of a career that most of us chose precisely because it is interesting, and usually at least satisfying if not full-on fun.

Call it the blahs. A plateau. Meh.

I used to think it was a problem, and I would brood and gripe about it whenever afflicted. But now I'm convinced it's actually good, a sign of healthy progress, like the aching muscles of a growing — and angsty — adolescent. I've even got a diagnosis. Most cases of science-writing ennui, I'm convinced, are nothing worse than … comfort. Or put another way, the absence of fear. Or rather, The Fear.

After all, a lot of science journalists — any journalists, really — are novelty junkies. We focus intently for a while, on one topic or another, or on writing for a particular outlet, or in a particular style. But when you consider how many of us got started in science writing because we didn't want to focus on just one sub-discipline as researchers, it's not surprising that we're going to get bored sooner or later and start searching for something new.

I'm convinced it's not just new information or new challenges we're seeking. I think we need The Fear. We need the real possibility of a ghastly, public failure (some of us, anyway) to feel fully alive.

As I've gone on in my career I've felt that loss of fear — adrenaline, at least in the literary sense — each time I've mastered a new level of achievement. And sometimes I've medicated in self-destructive ways. (Procrastination has many fathers. Could ennui-inspired thrill-seeking be one of them?) But there are healthy ways to fight back against boredom too.

So what's a burned out, bummed out, semi-bored science writer to do? The solutions are as varied as the shades of funk. But most success stories seem to have a common element: embrace the new.

For Sarah Webb, the ennui hit several years ago. She'd reached an enviable career plateau — work was steady and she wasn't worried about hitting her income goals. But work just wasn't feeling interesting, and she had stress in other parts of her life. Plus, she says, "I'd had a gnawing suspicion that I needed more collaboration in my life." Building the book website for The Science Writers' Handbook was a huge first step to solving that problem for Sarah — she took on the role of editor-in-chief of the website and its blog. "The process of planning and launching [the website] helped me tap back into some of the collaborative creativity that I hadn't used much since I'd been working from home," Sarah says.

That same impulse, to work with others on something knew, was behind Virginia Gewin's idea some years ago to start "GoalsLance" — a subset of the SciLance community focused on finding and conquering new professional goals. One of the results has been a reporting team called "Flux." They're a group of six SciLance writers, including Sarah and Virginia, who soon went on to absolutely obliterate any career plateaus with their ambitious global-change focused reporting project, Bracing for Impact, on the Beacon platform.

Bryn Nelson recently went through a period of nameless malaise, too. Sure, he did the standard things, like mapping out specific career goals, and coming up with a five-year plan to achieve them. But he also broke out of his routines, giving himself permission to indulge in some fiction writing, and attend a competition-style cooking class and a "do your own painting" evening. He kissed his comfort zone goodbye, in other words. "The satisfaction of being able to create something original and not necessarily work-related has helped me regain much of my motivation," Bryn says.

It's not like the risk of new plateaus ever goes away. But for many of us, science writing is already a second career if not a third. It's supposed to be the result of the mid-life crisis, not the cause of it. So it's worth finding new ways to add the spice of imminent potential disaster back into your work life.

Take Sarah. Almost as soon as the book website was up and running, she was already thinking about her next project — the one she'd take on after she came back from maternity leave. "I'm increasingly convinced that I need to be working on some sort of entrepreneurial collaborative stretch project," she says. "The next piece I need to figure out is how to make those types of projects make money."

If the thought of doing that while raising a toddler isn't enough to inject a little healthy Fear into a career, I can't imagine what could.

Thomas Hayden is director of Stanford University's Environmental Communication Master of Arts program. He was a staffer at Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, co-authored two books, and co-edited The Science Writers' Handbook.

Image by mountainamoeba via Flickr/Creative Commons

BWF Climate Change and Human Health Seed Grants

EurekAlert! on LinkedIn

Advertise with NASW