Are you prepared for the problems of success?

The Thesis Whisperer blog has gone from strength to strength over the years. Visibility is a form of currency in academia. A rolling stone gathers moss as the proverb goes (edit: well – actually it doesn’t! That should be a rolling snowball or something? Anyway…) and in my case moss = opportunities. Because of my profile, I get asked to keynote conferences, run workshops, contribute to books, be on grants and so on. Taking up these opportunities naturally leads to more conventional forms of academic success. I’m now an associate professor at a prestigious university. I get paid decent money to do what I love. On any metric I have won the academic hunger games, but does this mean I have a trouble-free life?

Sadly, no. While we are well prepared for failure in academia, no one prepares you for the problems of success.

Image by @fz_nsr from Unsplash.com

Failure in academia is normal. Not getting the job, not getting a paper published, not being accepted for that conference are garden-variety problems of the academic persuasion. There is plenty of advice on how to deal with academic failure – and plenty of sympathy. Problems of success are harder to spot, less discussed and, usually, garner little to no sympathy from your peers.

Consider my friend (and rather famous sociologist) Deborah Lupton. At time of writing, Deb has 26740 citations of her work and a h-index of 70 (which can be compared with my paltry 437 citations and h-index of 9). Recently Deb complained about being told off by peer reviews for not citing her own work when they read her anonymised papers… and then being criticised for self citing too much when she submits the final version! While most of us wont write 20 books and be known all over the world for being an innovative and creative thinker like Deb, I think it’s worth pondering on some of the ordinary problems that are a result of success. In fact, I’ve been mulling on this idea for years, but it’s never made it as far as a blog post until the other day when a colleague (who wishes to remain anonymous) helped me develop a list of success problems over lunch. I’d be interested in whether you have more to share in the comments:

Professional Jealousy

A long time ago I wrote a post called Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness which was, in part, prompted by my own experience. Professional jealousy can take many forms: being frozen out, people gossiping about you, people trying to damage your reputation, people ganging up to undermine you, or even having your work appropriated.

The problem with professional jealousy is the behaviour of others is never obviously directly connected to their envy of your success. For example, a person might consistently undermine the quality of your work to your boss, while claiming they are just concerned about your workload; or a person might leave you out of an opportunity because you seem to be “always busy blogging”. In PhD cohorts, professional jealousy often takes the form of questioning that undermines your confidence: “why are you spending time on that?”, “why haven’t you included [insert theorist here]?”, Or “why haven’t you considered [insert method here]?”. Such questioning can be helpful of course, but it can also be unwelcome and create a toxic work environment.

It’s remarkably easy to start blaming yourself for another person’s poor behaviour. Remember, it’s bullying if it’s targetted and repeated, so if a person consistently asks you questions and does not stop when asked, it’s not ok. I have no good solutions for dealing with professional jealousy. If it gets really bad, the best thing to do is take your bat and ball and go play somewhere else, preferably with other successful people who are not threatened by you.

The too hard basket

If you are visibly successful, good at your job and have unique skills, people will tend to bring you their hardest problems. This is flattering and generally a good thing. It’s nice to feel you are the expert and most academics love to share their knowledge. However, solving complex problems is time-consuming and sometimes (frequently?) there is little direct reward for you other than a warm, fuzzy glow.

Successful people have to learn to balance the time they spend helping others with time they spend doing their own stuff. Becoming the person who is always given the too hard basket is a particular trap for women, who are often seen (unconsciously) as ‘helpers’. My view is that being generous is the best policy, but setting boundaries is important. One of the boundaries you can set easily is time. If someone wants my advice on a general topic in my field, I usually offer to have lunch. That way I get to eat and have an interesting conversation, without taking time out of my workday. If people email me with a problem, I always answer, but sometimes not for weeks, and I never apologise for how long the person had to wait. Your time is a gift, so give it on your own terms and if people abuse it, don’t keep giving.

As good as (or better than?) your boss.

This is a tricky one for me especially. I have been working in my field for some 14 years now and have a wide range of theoretical and practical knowledge. I could probably do my manager’s job – if I wanted to. Yet I am in a chain of command and ultimately do not make the big decisions. I’m still learning how to sit at the back of the bus.

Being on equal footing in terms of knowledge, but not in terms of power, needs to be carefully managed. If your boss is insecure, they may take your advice as criticism; if your boss is overconfident, they may just ignore you. It can be hard watching someone make a mistake you know could have been avoided.

I see this problem in some supervisory relationships where the student is a long-standing practitioner in their field, and their supervisor has spent their life as an academic. It can be hard for practitioners to value academic knowledge and vice versa. Careful listening and mutual respect takes work on both sides, and the power differential can make that difficult.

Everyone wants a piece of you.

Remember what I said about rolling stones and moss? Success breeds opportunities; luck is where opportunity meets preparation. The more opportunities you get, the luckier you become! While opportunities are fantastic, everything has a time cost. When there are lots of opportunities on the table, it can be hard to set priorities. Taking up too many opportunities and not leaving enough time to do the stuff that makes you successful will, over time, undermine your success.

My friend Jason Downs used to have a job driving around valuing houses for banks considering giving people mortgages. He once said something wise and true: “I see my dream house once a week”. Part of the pain of letting go of opportunities is the fear that that opportunity will never be offered again, but there is always more than one dream house. If you do good work, and other people see you do it, that same opportunity, or a variation of it, will come up again. Trust me on this one.

So that’s my initial list of success problems – what about you? Do you have more to add or insights on any of these? Love to hear about it in the comments.

Related posts

Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness

Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

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6 thoughts on “Are you prepared for the problems of success?

  1. Pingback: Are you prepared for the problems of success? — The Thesis Whisperer – Briants blog

  2. Thanks for sharing. I’m transitioning through a postdoc and hopefully into faculty positions soon. While I’m still gathering momentum, I resonate with parts of this. The point about time being a gift is something I don’t think about explicitly, but I’m finding it very important to explicit think about how I spend my time.

    “Your time is a gift, so give it on your own terms and if people abuse it, don’t keep giving.”

    It also reminded me that giving time is a choice I have and I’m someone who always apologizes for delayed responses. Great things to think about!

    • It’s a difficult problem, because you often get told to basically be an asshole with your time as an early career researcher. I don’t think that’s a good way to live, let alone build a career. Someone shared with me in a workshop the other day that they have a rubric for choosing if to give their time. She must be able to answer ‘yes’ to two out of the following three questions: 1) Does it pay? Does it advance your career? Does it help others in a way to that is consistent with your values? I think there is something in this, although I would do things just for three alone.

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