Be Not Dismayed

Yesterday I printed this verse and slid it into the plastic sleeve on the front of my research binder. Then I saved it as my desktop wallpaper. I need to be forced to look at it every time I stick my head in my research.

I should rephrase that last sentence. It makes it sound as if there are times when my head is not in my research. In actuality, the back of my brain is chewing on my research even when I'm not conducting or transcribing or coding or comparing interviews.

I've finished five interviews at this point, and I have four to go. I need to nail some of those down this week.

I recently read a BuzzFeed post about the differences between undergrad and grad school. No point resonated with me more than this: "In college, your main job is to consume knowledge. In grad school, you're supposed to the one PRODUCING the knowledge."

That so accurately captured what I'm wrestling with right now. I know how to absorb knowledge, to distill knowledge, to summarize and synopsize and synthesize knowledge. But this whole producing knowledge thing? Yeah, not so sure how to do that.

But that's the whole point of this research project. At the end of it, I'm supposed to come up with a theory. A theory, people.

When I'm not worrying about the theory that I haven't yet developed, I'm actually pretty fascinated by my research. I think that's how I'm supposed to feel. I'm interviewing brand managers from nonprofits, and I'm basically just getting to pick their brains. I ask about their experiences and challenges and successes in developing and articulating their brands. The same issues come up in every conversation: How do we tell the stories of the people we have helped? How do we articulate to the public what it is that we do? How do we justify using donors' dollars on marketing? How do we ensure consistency? How do we help staff members and volunteers recognize that they are stewards of the brand?

These are not just the questions I'm asking. These are the questions that the interviewees themselves seem to be dealing with. It's a competitive charitable market, and everyone who's doing this for a living is, to some extent, just trying to figure it out.

Is this fascinating to anyone besides me?

I'm supposed to develop the theory by noting relationships among concepts. So I print each interview and go line by line, making a note for each concept that comes up. I have like three pages of concepts already. Brand voice, differentiation among audiences, confusion among nonprofits, reasons for financial support, etc. etc. etc.

Am I really going to end up being able to piece these concepts back together into a theory? I don't know yet.

I wish my final report could just be a list of things that I still don't know. "Well, I conducted nine interviews. I pored over the transcripts. I mulled over the concepts. I mentally stuck them together and pulled them apart like a 2-year-old with a new box of Legos. And what I discovered is that I have a thousand more questions."

It's amazing how my feelings about whether I'll be able to get this project done change regardless of my actual progress. I can shift from a sense of competence to one of utter fear and dismay in the course of a few hours. Let's not even talk about the way I feel about my research when I wake up in the middle of the night. It's like SHEER TERROR.

I'm hoping that seeing that Bible verse a hundred times every day will help. I am not alone in this. My feelings and my fears do not represent reality. It's not all up to me. Or, rather, it's not up to me at all.

I don't know how to wrap this post up tidily. Fortunately, blog posts — unlike research projects — are not about producing knowledge. I can end them with a big, fat I don't know if I want to. I haven't gotten it all figured out yet, and that's okay.