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An Anthropologist Bites Off More Than She Can Chew.

The Yes Book Blog

An Anthropologist Bites Off More Than She Can Chew.

Jill Cooper

Brian Jannsen

Brian Jannsen

If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.
— Jane Austen

Some people are great at pacing themselves. They are organized, methodical and act with great deliberation. I, on the other hand, do best when I bite off more than I can chew. The pressure of a tricky situation enlivens me, so I’ve learned to say “yes” to things I don’t feel ready for. This approach requires a lot of trust, which has been absolutely vital to my work as an anthropologist.

My path to becoming an anthropologist wasn’t a direct one. I loved language, and majored in linguistics as an undergraduate. While exploring electives, I took my first anthropology course, and I was hooked.

As the study of human cultures around the world and across time, anthropology had everything I loved about linguistics -- and more. I loved language, in part, because it provided people with a framework for understanding the world, and exploring peoples’ different frameworks was fascinating to me. Through anthropology, I began to realize that the religions of the world did the same thing. I wanted to know more.

I wanted to learn everything about how people around the world saw their lives and understood reality. I wanted to know how they raised their kids, learned their languages, and interacted with outsiders. I especially wanted to know what they believed their purpose was and where they thought they went, if anywhere, when they died.

I continued studying anthropology but got my degree in linguistics, and after graduating I I took the well-worn practical and methodical route and entered a master’s program in speech pathology in San Diego. But, after languishing for a semester in classes that didn’t spark my imagination and contemplating a  logical but uninspiring future, I realized I’d made a mistake not to follow my own interests and instincts.  I dropped out.

Sometimes the universe drops things in our lap, inviting us to take a leap, follow our heart and say “yes.” Soon after leaving my master’s program, while working as a barista, a French radio crew entered the store looking for people to interview about the America’s Cup sailing competition being held in San Diego. I didn’t follow sailing, but I did speak French, so I agreed to talk to them.

I’ve never been shy around strangers and soon the French interviewer was hearing about my interest in anthropology and all the reasons I shouldn’t pursue a Ph.D. I’ll never forget what he told me, in his Gallic-accented English: “Listen,” he said. “If you do something you love, you’ll put a lot of time into it. If you put a lot of time into anything, you’ll become good at it. If you become good at something, you’ll be able to do the work and find a job.” It was surreal. In a moment of crisis and doubt, a Frenchman appeared out of nowhere and encouraged me to say “yes” to my dreams and desires. Who was I to argue?

Soon I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in anthropology and was planning what I wanted to study. Religion was a given, but where? My advisor placed a picture of the French shrine town of Rocamadour in my mailbox that sent me into a tailspin. France! France? Could I study sacred places in France?

While contemplating all of this I flew cross-country to visit a friend and got in a conversation with the stranger next to me on the plane (I do that a lot). His hobby, as it turned out, was visiting sacred places in Europe, and soon I was hearing about shrines and monasteries throughout France. I took the hint though. I said “yes” to France.

My dissertation fieldwork started in April 1997. I was staying with a pair of nuns who had attic apartments available for pilgrims to the shrine of Rocamadour, a thousand-year old center dedicated to the Virgin Mary. I had developed a practical and methodical plan of study, starting with Rocamadour, until the Universe, once again, dropped another possibility into my lap.

Sister Lucie informed me that the large diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes was happening the following week and that she would talk to the priest running it to get me added to the list of pilgrims. I wanted to say no. I really did. It was too much work with too little preparation. My French was too weak, my understanding of Catholic pilgrimage was too limited, and I had just gotten there! I was still too jet lagged! But on some level, I knew I could not pass up this opportunity. So I agreed, and just days after arriving in France I was on a train, one of 400 pilgrims bound for the famous pilgrimage site of Lourdes.

For the next five days I ate slept, prayed and sang with people I didn’t know. But though I was ill-prepared, confused, sleepy, panicked, uncomfortable and had no idea what I was doing, I stumbled along and learned more than I could have imagined. My findings from that pilgrimage informed the rest of my dissertation research and truly put me on the path to my Ph.D. Everything was easy after that experience.

After defending my dissertation, I worked part-time at different universities, saying “yes” to whatever opportunities came my way. My willingness to bite off more than I could chew made a difference in my resume by showing my range and abililty to stretch. I wanted to stay in California, but when I was offered a job in Michigan, I said “yes” yet again and plunged into the unknown.

Before long I was dating a Michigander and (after another yes) was married to him. I said “yes” to more research in France, “yes” to a baby, “yes” to tenure, and “yes” to department chair (I still can’t believe it).

Saying “yes” is scary. Sometimes I agree to things before I fully understand what I’m agreeing to. But the yes means that I trust myself, that I have faith that things will be okay, and that I have a focus for my attention. Now when students come to my office for career advice, I quote the mysterious Frenchman who appeared when I needed a push: If you love it, you’ll make it happen. Commit first, then work out the details. Be brave, be game, go beyond the practical, and see what you can do.


By Deana Weibel


Edited by Melinda Gates (