Entering the Warrior Phase

As I write on this snowy winter day, hundreds of athletes are competing for gold in Vancouver BC at the Winter Olympics.  Trained, toned, stoked, pumped, psyched, they hurl themselves down mountains, onto the ice, or into the air at heart-stopping speeds.  It’s thrilling to see them win; it’s agony when they crash. The full gamut of extreme emotions ripples like firelight across the faces of parents, coaches, and loved ones in the crowd.

I love to watch the downhill racers and figure skaters.  You can see how wonderfully strong and fit they are, and when they fall, as some always do, it’s amazing to watch them get up and go on.  How can they stand those tremendous crashes and joint-wrenching falls?  If they weren’t in top shape, they’d be seriously, perhaps even fatally injured.  The strength and control that allow them to ski or skate right up to the edge also protect them when they slip over. Resilience, courage, and stamina radiate from the bodies and faces of these young warriors, who fight to overcome not just world records and treacherous snow conditions, but also their own fears and limitations.

Of the dozens who race or perform, only three will get to stand on the medal podium.  And for every one who makes it to the Olympics, hundreds more have fallen by the wayside in qualifying trials.  I cannot help thinking about all these other ones, about their hours of training, their hopes and fears, and the hundredths of a second that can make the difference between moving up and being eliminated.  In the winner-take-all world of big-time sport, there is no place for the also-rans.  They must look within themselves to find satisfaction, affirmation, and the courage to go on.

Nor, at this time of year, can I help thinking of all the highly-trained people struggling to find or maintain a place in the academic world.  It’s the season of job hunting, on-campus interviews, and tenure decisions.  You smell the tension in the air, acrid as burnt wiring.  The race is on, and at the end, some will advance and some will not.  Those who do will have new challenges, about which we’ll be writing later; those who don’t will be challenged in a different way.  And all the while, close behind, the next year’s competitors crowd toward the starting gates.

In the warrior phase of life and career, everyone struggles to find a place in the world.  Training is past, school is past, and now we have to deal.  The world is big and strong, and it asks us to do many things at once.  How can we find the strength and balance to rise to the task and survive the bruising we are bound to take on the course, no matter what the outcome?

Our next series examines the phase of the warrior.  As you read, think of people you know who seemed to lead a convincing life at this stage.  What were their secrets of balance?  Feel free to share a comment or, better yet, a story.

Counting What Counts

John and I welcome your thoughts on exploring the challenges of sustaining an emotionally, ethically, and spiritually healthy life in academia. We are grateful to our friend and colleague Michael P. Branch, professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada Reno, for his interest in the Staying Alive project. May his words inspire you to join the conversation.


I’ve enjoyed reading Mark’s and John’s thoughtful postings regarding concepts of success and failure in professional life, and I’m deeply grateful that their work in Staying Alive will reach and help so many folks who aspire to meaningful labor in the often vexing, boxes-within-boxes world of twenty-first century academic life.

I work in the humanities, in a large graduate program at a large research university, and—despairing comments about research universities notwithstanding—I find the work extremely meaningful and challenging. I especially value the lifelong professional friendships I develop with graduate students—people with whom I work very closely, and whose professional success is to my mind inseparable from my own. When I help a doctoral student succeed with a challenging dissertation project, or secure employment necessary to support their family, or find their way toward a productive feeling of comfort in the profession, I feel that I’ve succeeded with work that is truly meaningful. I also love research and writing, and so I appreciate the opportunity to labor in an institutional setting where that sort of work is valued.

That said, in recent years I have become increasingly troubled by what I view as a radical narrowing of institutional definitions of individual professional success. I refer not to my home institution specifically but rather to the profession at large—and especially, to the articulation of priorities within the research university. In considering this issue of how institutions define success and failure I’m often reminded of Einstein’s astute observation that “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” More so than in the past, I believe, institutionally sanctioned definitions of success are often stiflingly, perhaps dangerously, circumscribed. Here, for example, is a short list of some of the kinds of professional activities that are considered virtually meaningless within at least some research universities: publishing in non-peer-reviewed venues; publishing edited collections; book review publishing or editing; editing special issues of journals; collaborative writing and editing; writing for general or popular audiences; scholarship that focuses on pedagogy; research that is out of one’s supposed area of expertise; mentoring junior faculty or students; service learning; contributing to professional development forums such as Staying Alive; and, most tellingly, community service of any kind whatsoever. Indeed, it is often the case that faculty who engage in these activities are simply perceived as having made poor choices. Because they have not pursued what Mark accurately describes as “the individualistic and hierarchical model of academic success” that is prevalent in the profession, their failure is viewed as the inevitable result of their lack of judgment. That is, their failure is defined precisely by the incongruity of their activities with the institution’s circumscribed sense of what matters. Clearly, though, not everything that counts is being counted.

It might be argued that the narrowing I describe is an unavoidable consequence of an attempt to fulfill the mission of institutions for which the production of specialists—researchers who can achieve prominence, improve recruitment, generate grant money, and place graduate students—is precisely what constitutes success. But even bearing these institutional priorities in mind, I would argue that the extreme circumscription of what counts has harmful effects that are substantial and often unrecognized. First, the narrowing of what counts produces a more homogenous faculty and professional culture in which fewer points of view exist and thus fewer fresh ideas are likely to circulate. Second, when many different forms of professional activity are defined as irrelevant to success, the richness and range of our intellectual engagement is profoundly restricted. Third, narrow definitions of success deter risk taking among faculty, which is to say that the narrower is the definition of success, the fewer are the opportunities for meaningful professional growth. Fourth, definitions of professional success that devalue service to a community obviously promote corrosive forms of self interest. Finally, and to me most important, any valorization of expertise that results in the suppression of risk taking, intellectual growth, expansion of range, diversification of forms of engagement, genuine creativity, and the nurturing of an ethic of service necessarily provides our students a pernicious model of professional success—one that is unlikely to make them either more fulfilled as people or more effective in whatever profession they may ultimately enter.

I love my work and I strive to do it well, both for my own benefit and for the benefit of others. As a professional I am neither discontented nor cynical. I do not believe that the problem I’ve described is entirely new, or that it occurs only at research universities—or, indeed, that it is specific to the academy. I maintain an Emersonian suspicion that most large institutions, often working under the banner of standards and assessment, ultimately tend toward real (if often benign) forms of control—that they tend toward a narrowing rather than an expansion of what counts—with the consequence that they become constraining, bureaucratized, or moribund. I don’t believe, as some do, that the problem is the solipsistic careerism of the professoriate, or that research universities are fundamentally ill-conceived. I do believe that, for a number of reasons that are considerably less compelling than they may at first appear, we have allowed our understanding of professional success in the academy to become far too limited. As Emerson wrote, it is “as if one looking at the ocean can remember only the price of fish.” We desperately need to nurture recognition that there are many different ways to think, write, teach, and serve, and that many varied forms of professional activity and achievement are meaningful, meritorious, and worthy of our respect and support. We need to encourage our academic institutions to do a better job of counting what counts, and when they are incapable of doing so we need to have the courage to do what counts even, and perhaps especially, when we know that it will not be counted.

Rethinking Success 4

I admit, recent posts have been pretty hard on success.  No doubt some of you will be asking, why should we not aspire?  Are we to shun ambition and go live in the sun?  Everyone admires the discipline, effort, and drive that push the limits of human thought and performance.  Why shouldn’t we take inspiration from the Michael Phelpses, Lance Armstrongs, or Reinhold Messners of this world? If, as Blake said, exuberance is beauty, how much more beautiful it is when someone throws their whole soul into some endeavor.   Why begrudge an Olympic gold medal or Nobel prize under the guise of a more exalted philosophy?  Even the I-Ching says that perseverance furthers.

Fair enough.  But what’s really at issue is not success per se, but rather the worship of success, which D.H. Lawrence famously called “the bitch goddess.”   We all need some success in order to maintain self-esteem, stay in the game, and put food on the table.  A moderate level of success can nourish both body and soul.  Beyond that, three serious problems arise.

First, consider the how the world rewards endeavor.  Success means you get to do more of the same.  If you teach well, they give you tenure.  If your book sells, your publisher wants another.  If you do well at your job, you get promoted.  You become known for what you are good at.  Opportunities come your way, and the more you take advantage of them, the more come knocking at the door.  Success feeds on itself; that’s why we say that “nothing succeeds like success.”  Because everyone loves a winner.

With the world’s rewards coming thick and fast, and even faster as time goes on, it becomes very difficult to step aside.  But that is often what your growth requires.  Growth, by definition, means change, development, new things, new ventures, stretching yourself, taking risks, discovery, maturation, uncertainty, even anxiety, perhaps even pain.  But it also means vitality, health, and a sense of unfolding.  We feel most alive when we are learning and growing; we feel happy and young.  From this point of view, success can appear as a hindrance.  Too much can limit our vision and even our desire for growth.  We can settle into the comfort of our competencies.  But, as the wise person said, if you are sitting on your laurels, it means you are wearing them in the wrong place.

Second, consider how many of your most memorable experiences, the ones from which you learned the most, did not come by choice but by chance, or from your enemies, or through some catastrophe in the outside world.  Do you really think you are the best judge of what’s good for you?  What does your life tell you in this regard? Has it always been good for you to write your own ticket?  Certainly, that’s one way the world rewards success, and we commonly think of it as a good thing.  But is it?  Getting one’s way may feel affirming at first, but a well-worn path soon deepens into a rut, and thence into a ravine from which it becomes increasingly difficult to see beyond the rim.

How much worse, then, when we internalize ambition and achievement so that they become bound up with our own sense of self.  Not only institutions, but people become addicted to success.  “How,” asked Thoreau, “can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge?”  As academicians, how admiringly we regard those who are “disciplined” and “productive”, forgetting that these are also characteristic of machines.

And this brings us to the third problem with success, which is that it’s not inevitable.  It depends on luck and circumstances as well as on ability, effort, or qualifications.  We all want to feel in control of our lives, as so we study hard, work hard, and try to do all the right things.  And still we may not get the job, we may be denied tenure, our true love may fall for someone else, our book deal may blow up, our institution may implode, our prudent investment may evaporate overnight.  Because, as medieval sages knew, Fortune will turn her wheel.  The Black Swan will appear.  Shit happens.

To loosen the hold of success on your imagination, always do what brings you joy, feeds your spirit, and feels worth doing for its own sake.  Learn from everything, no matter how painful, for if you are in a learning mode, you can’t lose.

And with that, we turn to the Warrior Phase.

A Sense of Where you Are

In a lunch conversation with a job candidate yesterday we found our way to the subject of student engagement. We were talking about developing what John McPhee memorably called in his book-length profile of Bill Bradley, a sense of where you are. We touched on the struggles young people have as they weigh the experience of college, sort through the often conflicting impulses to focus on means or ends, and imagine a meaningful relationship between their academic experiences and the results of those experiences beyond school.

The challenges of our academic lives, it seems to me, revolve around similarly conflicting impulses. On the one hand, we are where we are, and the opportunities of our professional lives take place in the day-to-day labor of reading, writing and teaching. On the other hand, we frequently lose that place as we seek to move from where we are to someplace else. I’ve already written here on what seems to me the necessity of movement in academic life. But what about learning to embrace the work we are privileged to find ourselves doing? What about making the most of it? What about living in the present, the place we have constructed through the choices we have made as well as by the conditions that have shaped our choices?

My conversations with John have helped me to think more productively across the phases of an academic career. These conversations have intersected with the little reading and thinking I have done on life stages: Erik Erikson’s stages of adult life, Robert Keegan’s evolving self, Carl Jung’s process of individuation and Parker Palmer’s more recent explorations of identity and integrity. And I have sketched  the map of development that identifies the student or apprentice, the warrior, the householder, and the sadhu.

Complicating my own personal and professional arc has been that my initiation into the apprentice phase happened much later in life (I decided to go to college when I entered my twenty-eighth year). In fact, the first piece of writing I published in an academic journal, a collaboratively written essay, sought to complicate the phase of apprenticeship in an academic life. For me, the warrior phase was mostly played out in athletic competition—through years of national-level Nordic ski racing or through the inwardly focused challenges of mountaineering. I now see that my successes in graduate school may have had much to do with having already entered into a transitional phase, as a “nontraditional student,”  where struggling and settling in were unfolding in a mutually constitutive way. Looking back, in fact, my intellectual interest in methods of inquiry that preoccupied me during graduate school may have been working through the complicated intersections of personal and professional development precisely where I was.

More recently I had the good fortune to have been granted and, perhaps more importantly, to have returned from a sabbatical leave. This hard-earned moment helped me to see the rewards of what we have been calling here the settler/householder phase, where scholarly commitments and productivity are deeply entwined with commitments to leadership and community. This has been the most apparent gift of my academic life. For I am fortunate to be a member of an academic institution that genuinely values forms of intellectual work beyond the more solitary activities of reading and writing. I cannot imagine any more a life without this solitude (as I once could not imagine a life without days, even weeks, in the mountains). But as I look at where my energies are focused these days I can see how deeply invested I really am in trying to honor the communities of people in which I work.

My sense of where I am includes an awareness of transition and movement. Carrying forms of wisdom and cultivating the significance of story in our lives—what we are calling here the elder phase—seems to me to be associated with the phase of life and profession named in that strange metaphor of the full professor, a title I now find myself carrying. Come to think of it, part of what I have been doing these past few years is listening to those elders I most admire, allowing their words and actions to infuse the possible ways I might move through the ongoing succession of moments that will make up the coming years of this academic life.

We need more of what Bradley brings to all of what he has done in his life—in his case, that preternatural presence on the hardwood floor, that intellectual ability to move without the ball and the awareness that one’s life unfolds across a life’s path that we really have more power to live in than our past (and future) experiences might suggest.