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.

Rethinking Failure 4

A few days into the new year, most of us have already begun to equivocate about our resolutions.  Already they seem overly ambitious, perhaps jut a bit unrealistic, or at any rate less important then we once thought.  It’s time to retreat,  retrench, and rationalize.  If we don’t reach the goal, we can always just lower our expectations.  Why do we go through this every year?  What causes us always to aim high and then, inevitably, fall short?  It seems like a built-in pattern, as if we had to set ourselves up.  What a desperate way to begin a new year, or a new decade!

Thoreau remarked, “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”  What wisdom, then, can we find in understanding failure, or rather our obsession with it and with its opposite, success?  In the context of plans and resolutions, failure means not attaining your goals.  It means you didn’t get what you wanted or do what someone thought you should.  Success mean the opposite, of course: you fulfilled expectations, accomplished the mission, made the grade, cleared the bar, came in first.  But failure means you didn’t medal; your reach exceeded your gasp; you fell short; you missed the boat; you blew it; you hit the wall; you tanked, caved, collapsed, ate it, bought the farm, shot and missed, took a bath.

We have, it seems, all sorts of vivid metaphors for failure, almost as many as we do for getting drunk or having sex.  But what about success?  The metaphors seem paler and less abundant.  We say that someone arrived, made it, scored, nailed it, but what else?  We brood on what we fear, and we certainly fear failure.  We don’t fear success nearly as much, though there are good reasons why we should.   Fat cats are not nimble.  Too much safety can make one slothful, complacent, and dull, which are hardly virtues in a world where one needs to be supple and alert.  The deeper the rut, the harder it is to change course.  The deeper the foxhole, the harder it is to climb out.

Success accustoms us to getting our own way and therefore breeds intolerance, impatience, self-righteousness, a sense of entitlement and a lack of compassion.  Greed and envy wait hungrily in the wings.  In this regard, success is the enemy of virtue.

Failure, in contrast, breeds self-confidence, because you must overcome shame and despair in order to go on.  You are thrown back upon inner resources.  You have to reinvent yourself.  You become aware of your own network of trusted friends and supporters, with their honesty and generosity.   You begin to realize what really counts in life, that tough love is the only durable kind.

Because failure accustoms you to letting go, it breeds resistance to addictions.  It forces you to deal with injustice and uncertainty and the loss of control.  Once you’ve lost a job, you don’t fear it so much the next time: it may still hurt, but at least you’ve been there before.  You know the way out.  God is not against suffering.  We should embrace our failures as opportunities to learn.  Pain is, or can be, a tonic to the imagination.  And yet how many of us, who claim to be teachers, really want to learn?  Maybe that’s why we are so desperately drawn by the sweet smell of success.

Rethinking Failure 2

When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth back in the mythical 1960’s, people were always looking over their shoulders.  The school had a rugged outdoorsman mentality (it was all-male in those days), which compensated rather actively for the intense class work and studying that went on all week. Weekends were devoted to blowing off steam via drinking, skiing, partying, or road trips.  The more studious and intellectual were always looking off wistfully at places like Harvard, thinking that’s where we should have gone, while the more rugged among us vigorously performed our ruggedness as if to prove that, in spite of our smarts, we actually were real men.  In short, you had to succeed both physically and intellectually.

It was little better in grad school.  At Yale there was no rugged outdoor ethos; instead, you had metropolitan envy.  People were always looking over their shoulders at New York, and a kind of star system prevailed.  Prematurely gray faculty with book-white skin plodded between the department and the library, their outsized reputations trailing behind them like stellar magnetic fields.  Between classes, at lectures, during social events you could watch graduate students circling into orbit.  Everyone was thinking about position, reputation, and success.

Either way – and not just in the Ivy League – school was all about success.  It was about meeting goals set by the institution and its agents, the faculty.  We were encouraged to internalize these goals and discipline ourselves to achieve them.  School rewarded us according to performance.  It functioned as what Foucault would call a “governmentality,” and I mean to lay some emphasis on the last four syllables.  As Thoreau observed, “It is bad to have a southern overseer … but worse if you are the slave driver of yourself.”  It no wonder that schools would not teach, nor want to teach, about failure.  The subject is taboo.  And yet it sits on everyone’s mind.

Note how we speak of “failing” a course.  It could be construed in the sense of letting down or breaking down, as in “I failed you” or “the equipment (link, chain, bolt, coupling, component, mechanism) failed.”  Notice here the connotations of betrayal, disintegration, or collapse counterposed to the expectation of integrity, reliability, or strength.  Also of interest is the vivid “flunk”, a word of obscure origin but with a sturdy Anglo-Saxon heft.  It has overtones, as well, of “flush”, “thunk”, or “sunk”.  The onomatopoeia suggests an inert object falling and hitting the floor or sinking into deep water. Inertia is key: the object has no more energy or life, no power of self-motivation.  You can say, “He flunked the course” or simply, “He flunked,” or more expansively, “He flunked out.”   Charles Livingston (American Speech 21:1, 16-18) connects it to “funk”, meaning “to shy away from, avoid, back out.”   This sounds plausible, but where did the “l” come from?  It also occurs in “flop” and “flub”, whose connotations resonate with those of “flunk.”  The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says that “flop” is a variation of “flap.”  I suppose a flap would flop if it opened and hit the ground.  As for “flub” it, too, is an Americanism “of obscure origin,” arising circa 1920.  Since “flunk” (also an Americanism) first appears circa 1800, its “l” does not descend from either of these but may share a common ancestor.

So, if you flubbed your exam and flunked the course, or worse, flunked out, it would certainly create a flap at home!

But we digress …

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Person

Those who work as adjuncts or part-timers give varying accounts of their situation.  For some, it works; for others it doesn’t.  But the basic facts remain pretty consistent: low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest status in the profession.  How can you make such conditions work for you?  It depends on who you are and what you want out of life.

Until recently, most adjunct faculty were experts employed elsewhere, who were brought in for special knowledge and skills that the regular faculty lacked.  They were recruited for particular programs on an as-needed basis.  Because they were employed elsewhere, their pay was in the nature of an honorarium, and their work was considered largely pro bono.  People took adjunct gigs out of a sense of social or professional responsibility, for the opportunity to teach and in that way to give back some of what they had gained.  Teaching was a refreshing change from their normal work life.  They did not think of themselves as professional educators.

Part-time faculty also realized some benefits.  Frequently, they were people who had left the work force to raise children or take care of aging parents, or, as faculty spouses, found themselves stuck in place and had to take the best option available for maintaining some sort of professional life.  Some part-timers were eventually able to work their way into full-time positions; others found the freedom and flexibility preferable to the up-or-out demands and legendary stress of the tenure track.

With the erosion of regular faculty positions and the abundance of available Ph.D.’s, adjunct and part-time work has now become the norm.  We now have thousands of adjuncts and part-timers making a career out of it.  These include many with terminal degrees and extensive publications.  But it is difficult to see how one can live on $21,000 a year, which is the average going rate for teaching ten courses.  And that emolument does not include the “psychic dollars” one gains from a regular position, with its sense of institutional citizenship and all the supports that go with it.

On September 5 of this year, Marc Bousquet posted a blog in the Chronicle’s “Brainstorm” section called “Meet Maria.”  Maria holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and suffers from mental illness.  She held and lost several tenure-track jobs before being reduced to adjuncting, which left her destitute and on the brink of homelessness.  She is now training to be  nursing assistant, which is a dirty and dangerous job that pays around $12 an hour, but at least, she says, you can find a position.

Maria’s testimony is heartbreaking, lucid and full of self-awareness.  She accepts responsibility for her situation, and she’s trying to make lemonade out of lemons by organizing a research project on health care workers.  Her goal, she says, is to keep from becoming homeless, and she has plenty to say about the trials of adjunct life.

As I read this story, it occurred to me that adjuncting and part-timing can feel like a kind of professional homelessness.  You lack a “home institution”, an “institutional home,” a place where you belong.  This is a pregnant metaphor – and we’ll examine more  in the weeks ahead – that tells us about the values and beliefs that underlie behavior.  We all want a home; we all want to feel at home; we all want and need to belong.  But we also judge people by where they belong – by their houses, their neighborhoods, their institutions.  Poverty and homelessness make us uncomfortable – they might be contagious!  In the eyes of regular faculty, adjuncts are tainted by failure, which is assumed to be their own fault.  As Maria observes, “Who wants to spend time with a loser?”

The issue, for those who adjunct or part-time, is how to turn the situation to advantage.  How can you thrive in a state of professional homelessness?  Thoreau, who advocated not owning a farm, liked the freedom to wander throughout the town and enjoy the best part of the landscape, which always yielded an “instant and immeasurable” crop without any labor on his part.  He also conducted an active literary and intellectual life without any connection to a university.  “Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport,” he declared.  Nevertheless, we have to remember that he did frequently avail himself of Mrs. Emerson’s apple pies.

The good people of Concord thought of Thoreau as a loser, but he didn’t think of himself that way.  Nor did Maria.  That is at least half the battle.  If you have no home, you can be at home everywhere.  Perhaps it is time to rethink the uses of failure.

Report from ASLE Victoria

We offered an updated version of our “Staying Alive” workshop at the biennial conference of ASLE in Victoria BC earlier this month.  About twenty faculty attended, representing every career stage and variety of institution.  We piloted an enhanced format and a new series of ideas.  It was great fun and encouraged us to think about taking our show on the road.  For those of you who attended, we hope you’ll keep reading this blog and use it to carry on the conversation.  For those who missed it, here’s a brief report.

We began with a circle and introductions.  Mark then read our “recently discovered fragment of a draft of “Walden,” which supposedly details Thoreau’s disenchantment with academe.  Knowing smiles did not begin to break out until he was about halfway through, and he laughingly explained that, when he read it as part of his acceptance speech for a teaching award back home at Keene State, no one got the joke until he had finished and remarked, “Of course this is only a parody.”

We then spent a half hour presenting basic concepts, some of which have appeared in these blogs: the dimensions of person, profession, and institution, the challenge of leading a balanced life, and the necessity of pursuing your own personal growth.  We used yoga balancing postures as the master metaphor, explaining that balance is a process of entering and sustaining dynamic equilibrium.

Dancer Pose
Dancer Pose

It is effortful, requiring both strength and coordination, and it manifests internally as aliveness or pleasure while manifesting externally as beauty. There is typically a single axis or center, about which the other limbs configure, so that there are always four “points” in play.  In our model these are the person, the profession, the institution, and the phase of life or career.  We offer tools for balancing, which can be thought of as ways of organizing energy flows.

The four phases of an academic career we correlate to Erik Erikson’s stages of adult life, but also to the traditional Indian model, in which a man (sic) is first a student or apprentice, then a warrior, then a householder, and finally a sadhu or yogi practicing in the forest.  For academic people, the apprentice phase is graduate school, where we are all learning the ropes (age 22-28).  The comes the warrior phase, where one struggles to find a place in the world (28-38).  Next comes the settler/householder phase (38-55), where one exercises leadership and achieves productivity and honor in the community.  And finally comes the elder phase (55+), when one becomes a wisdom carrier and story-teller.  (Mentoring and faculty coaching programs typically target the first two phases and neglect the latter two, but we feel that all are important and worth addressing.)

After this introduction, we moved on to discussions of each individual phase, a half-hour each.  We asked everyone to do a short free-writing on someone they knew who had led a convincing life during that phase.  Then we shared and discussed these impressions, looking for tools we could identify and use.  These discussions proved extremely rich and exciting, no doubt because people seldom have such an opportunity to explore their deepest feelings and personal history in a professional setting free of competition. By the end of our three-hour session we had developed quite a few tools and were able to wrap up with a synthesis of principles and strategies for balanced living.

We’ll elaborate on some of these ideas and tools in subsequent posts.  Please send us your views and let us know if your colleagues might benefit from a workshop like this.

Note:  institutions represented at the Victoria workshop included Lafayette College, Salisbury University, University of Northern BC,  University of Gothenburg (Sweden), Middlebury College, University of Dayton, Mount Holyoke College,  South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, University of Minnesota – Morris, Penn State University – Altoona, and the University of Connecticut.

(picture source:

“Simplicity, Independence, Magnanimity, and Trust”

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

As a doctor of philosophy and erstwhile scholar I’m thinking that Thoreau’s chain of terms to describe the dictates of wisdom–“simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust”–sound pretty darn good. But as with most of the things Thoreau tells me, I am looking for some purchase, some way of mapping such high-minded dictates onto the contours of this life.

Earlier this month I was asked to give a keynote address to faculty, students and their families at the annual Keene State College 2009 Academic Excellence Program. While I am skeptical of the discourse of excellence-as anyone who has read Bill Reading’s book or the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu should be-I am an enthusiastic supporter of the goals of the annual event: to give undergraduate students the opportunity to share their intellectual work with a broad audience and to work closely with students beyond the classroom. In any given year over 350 students and family members, faculty, staff, community members, area legislatures and university trustees attend the gathering.

On my professional blog I talked a bit about how my address, The Trouble with Scholarship, came together as I thought about questions. But as I was thinking about where questions come from, why we take them up, how they move us from where we are to someplace new, I was also reading Wayne Booth’s essays in The Vocation of a Teacher. Booth got me thinking about the words “calling” and “vocation” and their uses in describing what college and university professors do with their valuable time. As I understand it, a calling is a summons of some kind, a motivation from on high, an invocation of purpose that appeals to transcendent purposes and values as a guide. A vocation, on the other hand, seems to be a kind of orientation to what one does, a way of talking about a calling but perhaps something that is more grounded in an internal motivation for one’s work. Avocation, surely, would be worth thinking about in relation to vocation. I’d like to quibble with the idea that a person’s avocation is a calling away-a minor occupation or hobby, a calling off, diverting, distracting, or interrupting.

If you are reading this post, and you are working in or around the college or university, might you take a few moments to make visible the person behind the more visible teaching persona, expertise and list of professional accomplishment? How does a vocation differ from a job or a career? What makes the kind of work many of us do with students every day meaningful and fulfilling? How does one sustain a sense of meaning and purpose in the current academic world where working conditions vary dramatically and where idealistic narratives predicated on notions of a “calling” or “vocation” might seem to be merely quaint if not obtuse? Where exactly do we find meaning and satisfaction in our work with students and/or in our scholarly preoccupations?

Point of Departure

I would fain say something, not so much concerning the practitioners of law, medicine, finance, or entertainment, as to you who read these pages, who are said to live in Academia, something about your condition, especially your inward condition and circumstances in this world, in this profession, what it is, whether it is necessary that it be as bad as it is, whether it cannot be improved as well as not. I have traveled a good deal in Academia; and everywhere, in departments, on campuses, and out in the fields of study, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. I see young men and women, my colleagues, whose misfortune it is to have acquired full-time jobs, with committees, advisees, advanced courses, chairmanships, and even tenure or even endowed chairs; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had gone out into the world direct from school, adventuring upon life, that they might have seen then with clearer eyes what field they would be called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? How many a poor immortal soul have I seen well nigh crushed and smothered under its load of term papers, exams, committee work, and faculty meetings, creeping down the road of life! Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. It is very evident to me what mean and sneaking lives many of you lead, always worrying, always complaining about the dean, trying to get into print and out of work, a very ancient slough called by the Latins proferte aut perebitis, publish or perish, for many did indeed perish along the way. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion of ourselves. Think of the junior faculty of the land hurrying home to churn out just one more article, not to betray too green an interest in their fates. As if you could win the rat race without feeding the rat!

A newly discovered fragment from an early draft of “Walden,” probably composed during Henry Thoreau’s stint as a classroom teacher.