Thursday, June 13, 2013

Are We There Yet? Ambition, Ego, Careerism are the Dark Side

When listening to General (ret.) Walt Natynczyk's talk yesterday, I was most struck by the part where he talked about the greatest threats were ambition, egoism, careerism.  That is, he was talking about how important trust is to the military as it is the foundation of relationships (always fun when  warriors sound like self-help authors).  And this makes sense especially if one wants to follow a philosophy of mission command where the higher ups delegate a great deal of discretion to the folks down the chain of command, trusting them to do what is best, rather than restricting them out of fear of what they might do.

Anyhow, the point was that officers focused on their own careers are corrosive to trust and relationships.  Natynczyck's recommendation: declare success and move on.  That is, become comfortable with where you are at and focus on the job and not on where one stands.  He mentioned how there were two and three star generals/admirals who viewed not getting that next star as a failure, which he found laughable.

This really struck home as I have been thinking lately about career stuff, perhaps because I am happy with my job, or perhaps because I am now a Full Professor, which means there is no more promotions to be had.  So Natynczyk's question rang in my head: when can an academic declare success?  The most likely responses, I would guess, are:
  • When one completes their PhD.
  • When they get their first publication.
  • When they get their first tenure track job.
  • When their work is cited for the first time.
  • When they get they get tenure.
I do concur with the general that focusing on one's own success at the expense of others can be pretty destructive.  I have known of colleagues to deliberately or less than deliberately prove to be unreliable as advisers and/or as contributors to department service because of their career pursuits.  I know that I became unreliable in my last job in terms of department service because the department was not abetting my career and was hurting my ego.  Was that a mature response that was productive for the organization?  Um, no.  On the other hand, I did keep up on the responsibilities I had to my students (grad and undergrad), so my egoism was not that harmful (see, I can still rationalize).

But I have reached the point where I think I can declare victory/success, and focus on doing what is fun and right and good and not so much on what is necessary for the next job/promotion/ambition.  I wish I reached that point earlier--my last years at McGill would have been far more enjoyable.  Hell, my time at Texas Tech would have been more enjoyable as well, as my pursuit of my career did sometimes impact what I was doing. 

Anyhow, I do like the idea of declaring success so that one can focus on doing what is good instead of doing what is good for one's career.  Of course, it is easy to say and hard to do when one is stuck in a spot where one does not want to be.

1 comment:

R. William Ayres said...

Two observations from the administrative track:

- There is ALWAYS another promotion, another next step. Could be why admins are more corrosive in their career-minded ness. There isn't an equivalent of "full prof" you can reach at 45 and declare victory.

- In the admin world, sometimes doing what's right doesn't just not help you advance, it gets you punished. Examples too numerous to cite here, but this is a real problem. Because admin is much more hierarchical, one person making the wrong calls at the top can resonate throughout the chain - an effect which senior administrators seem very adept at not getting blamed for.