Adapting to Change, Goal Setting and Digital Legacy After Death | A Q&A with Elaine Kasket

1 February 2019

We recently caught up with Elaine Kasket, a psychologist, author, futurist, and an expert on digital legacy after death, to chat about her shift in career, adapting to new environments and what drew her to become an expert in digital and death. Thanks for chatting to us Elaine!

You had a major shift in your career moving from academia. What was it that sparked this shift?

How much time have you got? You might want to settle in with a cup of tea. Well, first of all, I’d embraced a fantasy that the higher I rose in academia, the more time and resources I would have to do the things that I most enjoyed about that life – thinking, reading, writing, and generally spreading useful knowledge not just to students but also to the world outside the academy and the university walls. That didn’t prove to be the case. Modern academics are expected to have a lot of strings to their bows and are asked to play most of those strings daily. In addition, a large proportion of a mid- to late-career academic’s time may be spent on managerial and/or administrative duties. I was burning the candle at both ends, doing both my job and all of those scholarly activities that I’d initially thought were going to be integral parts of that job, and meanwhile I was drifting ever further from some of my core values: creativity, flexibility, health, family, and well-being. Because there were so many things I loved about academic work, it was hard for me to accept the fact that I couldn’t stay in it while also living a values-consistent life. If I hadn’t left when I did, I wouldn’t have been able to look my psychotherapy clients in the face any longer, because I’m a strong believer in practicing what I preach!

How did you adapt to the change in environments?

My reaction to the change in environments took me by surprise. I thought it would be glorious from the start, because straightaway I would have far more time to devote to family, well-being, and creative pursuits. My income was covered by my psychotherapy practice, I’d procured my literary agent and been fortunate enough to secure a book contract, and I’d arranged three days a week free and clear to write as I chose, free from the constraints of academic publishing convention. Heaven, right? But I didn’t adapt quickly. It took my body about four months to calm down from the adrenaline-fuelled, overworked lifestyle I’d maintained for so long. I wanted freedom, but my brain seemed alarmed by its presence, and so my mind constantly suggested that I load back up with projects and formal commitments. It took everything I had to resist those temptations to return to the status quo. Slowly, though, I noticed a change, like a sensation of literal, physical spaces opening up in my head. When I allowed things to be slower and less busy, the ideas started popping up, like little seeds germinating, and connecting with one another as through a common root system. When I found a co-working space to write in, a beautiful place near my home with light and coffee and charming and creative people, my external environment aligned with my internal environment and I was incredibly productive and focused. It wasn’t always easy, of course. Sometimes the writing doesn’t flow. But I now had time – and was giving myself the permission - to allow the creative muse to be the fickle creature she is.

What advice would you give one who is also going through a professional change in their career?

I would advise them as I advise my psychotherapy clients – focus on values, not goals, as your guiding star(s). Values are infinitely more flexible than goals, and they don’t limit you or set you up for binary success/failure situations – as valuable as it can sometimes be, that’s the down side to goal-orientated thinking. If you set a goal, you either meet it or you don’t. If you live in accordance with a value, on the other hand, you have a million ways of moving towards that value in the course of a day, in both tiny and big ways, in all different realms of your life. For me, once upon a time, a professional goal was professorship, and this didn’t seem an unreasonable or abnormal goal for which to aim. Surely this is a desired, logical target in an academic career, the point at which you know you’ve arrived. The achievement and status would make me happy, or at least happier, right? Buying into that assumption as being only common sense, I duly, mindlessly pursued this trajectory for a good while. But when I sat down with a values clarification exercise and really examined that goal against the values that were indisputably at the top for me – creativity, flexibility, family, well-being - I could see straightaway that this particular professional goal didn’t fit well with any of these, at least not then, not there. It was wrong for me, whatever status or other benefits it might have conferred. You make far smarter, healthier choices when you make them in service of values, and when you’ve interrogated your goals for consistency with those values.

Digital and death is one of your key topics. What was it about this particular field that you were drawn to initially?

I did my master’s dissertation on the topic of online counselling, at a time that such a thing was just becoming possible. I was interested in the way that therapeutic practitioners were working and relating in this technologically mediated way. My subsequent doctoral thesis on how medical doctors experience patient death, which in a way also has to do with the personal and professional facets of practitioners’ lives and experiences, and how they draw the boundaries. Having accomplished the formal research projects that were necessary in order to get my professional qualifications, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever do much research again. But then Facebook came onto the scene, and I stumbled across the ‘in memory of’ page of a young woman. My separately established interests in death and the online context collided in that moment. For the first time I was driven to do research not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I couldn’t not investigate this further – I was too fascinated. That’s a tremendously vital feeling. I’ve studied this particular intersection ever since.

What have you found to be the most interesting fact that your audience has had the biggest response to?

The thing that seems to have had the most impact is not a fact exactly, rather a story that has many salient facts and arresting implications contained within it. It’s the story of how the family of a murdered woman appealed to Facebook to remove 72 photographs of her murderer from her memorialised account, and how the social network refused, on the grounds of protecting the privacy of the deceased. This account seems to wake people up. They realise not just the extent and nature of the control, but the duration of the control that corporations can now wield over our information. The degree of power that corporations have to both write and enforce the rulebook regarding our posthumously persistent personal data may not be absolute, but it’s close. Into the void left by governmental, regulatory and legal guidance, corporations are boldly stepping. And remember - the ultimate goal of for-profit businesses is the health of their bottom line, not necessarily the safeguarding and betterment of individuals and society.

It was great to chat and learn about your interesting career and how you handled change! I for one will start to focus on values and not put such a big emphasis on goal setting. Read more from Elaine on Digital Privacy and how to better protect yourself online in this post .

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