Eating the Elephant

I know, I know. I am officially MIA, and I’m sorry. I only have one more week of hard, life-consuming revisions. Then it’s on to the easier stuff, and I promise I’ll be back.

So a quick post for today. It’s about eating your elephant.

When I was in my undergrad at the University of Georgia, plowing through an absurdly over-my-head senior thesis, and wondering how I was ever gonna take on a Masters, a professor gave me this advice:

“You have to eat a little bit of your elephant everyday. If you do that, your Masters will be easy.”

As I recall, I looked up from my microscope with a “WTF are you smoking?” expression on my face. This prompted him to explain.

“Think of your research as an elephant that you have to eat.”

“Ew.” I wrinkled my nose up. “I’m a vegetarian.”

“It’s a metaphor, Susan. You’re missing the point.”

“Oh. Well, explain then.”

“If you wait until your thesis is due and try to eat the entire elephant, you’re gonna puke, hate your life, and do nothing but eat elephant for days and days.”

“Um, ok.” I waved him on. “Continue.”

“But if you eat a slice of your elephant–“

“Can we say cake instead?”

His breath shot out in annoyance. “Yes, fine. Cake. If you eat a slice of your elephant-sized cake everyday, then when it’s time for you to be finished with that cake, it’ll be a cinch because you’re almost there already.”

“Ah.” I tapped my nose and nodded sagely. “I see.”

“Yes. It’s pretty straightforward, but something that a lot of new grad students fail to do. They have two years spanning before them with no deadlines in between, so they piddle around, do the lab and field work, but avoid writing. So then a few weeks before they defend, they’re scrambling to write 150 pages and prepare for their defense. It ain’t pretty.”

“So… If I set my own deadlines?”

“Yeah, or just write a little everyday — ten minutes of work. That’s how you make the jump from a student to a professional.”

Well, I took his advice and ate some of my elephant everyday. I finished my Masters nine months early and set a new record for my department — and I’m not saying this to toot my own horn.* I’m saying it because this advice applies to all aspects of life, especially writing.

Writing is one of those pursuits where education, connections, and even skill mean nothing. If you want a career as a writer, you have to treat it like a professional, and that means setting goals, meeting deadlines, and working a little everyday. You have to self-motivate.

So, stop making excuses. You have to eat your elephant if you want to accomplish your goals, and it’s easier to do it in small bits. Plus, manageable slices mean you’re way more likely to stick with your project the whole way.

Good luck!


*Okay, maybe I am a little. My Masters’ defense was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through, and I’m really proud that I succeeded. Yes, there were tears involved — especially when it was over and I could finally think about something other than fish.