The Trouble with ‘Keep Calm and Study On’

You are probably familiar with the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, but do you know where the phrase comes from? It was actually coined by the UK’s Ministry of Information during the Second World War. The Government printed the phrase on a number of motivational posters at the height of the war in order to boost the morale of the British public throughout the war effort. The sentiments behind the poster are commonly seen as a testament to the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach, which is essentially a form of stoicism in the face of adversity.

Keep Calm

Since that time, the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has been co-opted for several other purposes. These days it is impossible to walk into a greeting card shop without seeing various incarnations of this phrase applied to other situations. So I was very interested when I wandered into one university book shop and spotted a card that read ‘Keep Calm and Study On.’ Although the card was intended as a joke, the meaning isn’t too far off from the general approach towards work and stress management in academia.

There tends to be a belief that, irrespective of how challenging or difficult a task may be, whenever we confront a stumbling block we should ‘power through’. This was certainly the approach that was practiced when I was a student and I continue to see colleagues adhering to the ethos of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ when it comes to their own work.

But I can’t help but wonder – is a war analogy entirely appropriate for coping with academic stress? The message it sends is that we should overlook how we are feeling in any given moment in order to complete the task at hand.

I can definitely attest to instances when I’ve set aside feeling overwhelmed, stressed and tired – perhaps turning to caffeine or sugar to give me the quick boost I need to power through. In such moments it was as though nothing was more important than completing whatever task I had on my plate, whether it was writing a book chapter, answering emails, marking, or preparing a presentation. Many of us have developed a pattern of approaching our work in this way.

Ignoring how one feels may be necessary in the context of a war, but should we really be stoic when it comes to our work?

The reality is that applying a stiff upper lip approach towards our studies and work can be quite detrimental. The more we ignore how we feel, both physically and mentally, the more we set ourselves up for unhappiness, chronic stress, and a host of other health-related challenges. But irrespective of the consequences, once we’ve grown accustomed to neglecting our physical and mental wellbeing, it can be a tough habit to break.

Our work and studies should not be viewed as a struggle or something to simply get through. This is perhaps what is most misleading about the ‘Keep Calm and Study On’ ethos in academia. It teaches us that our work is meant to be a struggle and that we shouldn’t expect it to be enjoyable.

The truth is that it is entirely possible to enjoy our work and it is actually when we take good care of ourselves that things flow. It’s when we don’t that our work tends to take double the amount of time and feels like a slog.

In order to get into the space where our work can flow, it is crucial that we resist the inclination to power through it at all costs and to start to consciously pay attention to how we are feeling. In other words, it requires us to reject the notion of keeping calm and carrying on.

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