In our last installment of “Sense & Sangria,” I gave advice to a first-year professor who wasn’t happy with his first tenure-track job. One of our commenters had some excellent advice for the professor:
I have been in the same situation for the last 13 years. What finally did the trick for me, I just decided it was a job, not a lifestyle. I go to work, do my job, get a paycheck and go live my life. It has made all the difference.
If you will recall in Post Academic’s past studies of the “no asshole rule,” Bob Sutton advised that victims of workplace assholes should do all they can not to let the abuse or endless slights “touch their souls.” Sutton shares a story about a woman who couldn’t leave her job but found a way to cope via a rather Zen approach:
… detached indifference, simply not giving a damn, might be the best that you can do to survive a workplace that subjects you to relentless humiliation…. Ruth was physically sitting at the table. In her mind, however, she wasn’t attached to her nasty and demeaning colleagues, their opinions didn’t affect her self-worth, their vile expressions and words weren’t touching her soul, and she was in a different and better world.
Your situation might not be as extreme. Your coworkers might be more irritating than vile. But the point is that, in order to keep work from bringing you down, you need to build up other parts of your life to boost your immunity against workplace strife. Family, friends, side projects, fitness, whatever is your thing, build it up and make it strong. Otherwise, work will just gnaw at you and make you miserable.
And if you give more in an effort to keep assholes at bay, it won’t work. You’ll probably still get laid off anyway or get assigned tasks that you hate, so don’t attach too much value to it. Attach value to what’s really important to you instead of impressing a bunch of assholes. Follow our commenter’s advice: Do your job, get your paycheck and live your life. After all, it is your life, not your boss’s life or your dean’s life.
Antique lap desk with hidden compartment. Image by Koppas from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
I’ve often said that a big benefit of the Hamster World is the ability to turn to HR when you encounter assholes in the workplace. And I will say this: Some HR reps are sloppy, but most of the people I’ve worked with genuinely want to help. I can think of one person who should probably earn a Lifetime Achievement Award in HR.
If that isn’t the case and you have an issue, what do you do? Well, I hate to say this, but you might need to lawyer up. Very few people are excited about hiring a lawyer. It’s expensive, and they have a bad rap from all those late-night ads that scare people with nightmare scenarios like getting hit by a rampaging Oscar Meyer Wiener Truck or catching salmonella from tainted licorice. Whatever. You name it, and there’s a lawyer who can handle it.
But using the words “I am CC-ing my lawyer” will put the fear of a Higher Power in others. One of my neighbors had a problem because the landlord wouldn’t repair a water leak that destroyed some of his books, and he was lucky enough to have a sister-in-law as a lawyer. He wrote a nastygram to the landlord, mentioned that he had consulted a lawyer, and threw in a CC at the bottom of the nastygram for good measure. Within a day, my neighbor received a visit from some efficient handymen, plus money for his books.
I’m not a lawyer. I know a few lawyers. Lawyers can be scary, but they can also be your best friend if you are serious about stopping a problem. Unlike what you may think from seeing “Judge Judy,” no one wants to be dragged into court, and no one wants to pay a settlement.
Caricature of a lawyer from Vanity Fair, 1873, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
As the debate over the value of college and a-driftin’ students rages, I’m starting to wonder what people go to college for. It used to be as a stepping stone to a better life. It worked for me. I learned a skill and got a job. But it’s not really working for everyone.
Is it the colleges? Is it the students? Or is it … our expectations? There’s a quotation from Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” (shared by Justin Cox at the Huffington Post) in which he and Adam Carolla discuss the value of a college education. And it’s interesting.
“If you’re not going to celebrate the kind of things you ultimately need, you’re going to end up with precisely what you deserve. Mathematically, your kids can’t have it better than you did and so on and so on and so on. It just doesn’t play out at all. So, rather than scratching your head over the algorithm, why not just step back and say, We’re all screwed up as to what better means.”
So, what is “better” to you? Do you want to make more than your parents? Do you want to do less manual labor? Do you want the kind of job where you can guide yourself? Something with more flex time? People seem to want it all, which is fine, but you’re less likely to get it all. You would be better off focusing on one goal. And focusing on an expectation isn’t the same as diminishing your expectations altogether. And focusing on an expectation doesn’t always mean you need to go the traditional college/grad school route.
For me, I want a job that gives me self-respect. Then I want a job that pays decently. Then I want to live in a city. That’s my rank order. Teaching didn’t give me self-respect, so I switched to something else. I also like to eat, so I found a job that helps with that. I also live in a city, although since that’s third on my list, I would be willing to give that up in order to keep the other two. And I didn’t need to get my PhD to meet those expectations.
I have made some compromises. I’d love to have a flex-time job. In an ideal world, I’d rather not be Hamstering away in a cube farm, but I do have self-respect, and I do get a salary that makes me happy. That’s not bad. I can take walks and go out for lunch if I’m tired of hamstering. I am OK with the compromise. If I am no longer OK with it, I’ll make a change.
Image of a glass half full or half empty, depending on how you look at it, from LuciaSofo from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
It’s about time for getting acceptances to grad programs or phone calls about your new job. So this makes it time for a reminder that you shouldn’t wear your workaholic tendencies as a badge of honor.
For hamsters like me, toiling into the wee hours isn’t worth it because a corporate bigwig might sell your company and toss you out on the street on your butt (Exhibit A: The mySpace layoffs). As for academics (and hamsters, too), you’ll never please everyone, so don’t cause yourself grief trying to be perfect. Why?
If you work the most hours you look the most desperate. You shouldn’t look lazy, but don’t be the hardest worker. After all, why do you need to work so much harder than the next person? Are you not as smart? Not as organized? Not as confident in your ability to navigate a non-work world? In many cases all three are true for those who work the hardest.
Ow. These are not pretty words for overachievers like academics and former academics. Academics are workaholics because academia is a meritocracy, right? And those who work the hardest must get ahead. That’s the law … right?
Alas, it is not. Talk to anyone who’s been going to MLA year after year after year.
Listen, you’re going to have to pull overtime hours on occasion. But don’t make it a habit, unless you are one of the handful of individuals who love their work so much that they can’t let it go.
A hamster and a hamster wheel by Dimitar Popovski. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about how exhausted they are. I know how it is. I’m still catching up on all the sleep I lost from recent cross-country trips. I’m still not even sure which state I’m in. But I started thinking about why people get exhausted. Sometimes, you can’t avoid it, but most of the time, you can avoid it by eliminating the biggest scourge in the workplace–busywork, aka, the type of labor others dump on you when you look like you’re not working hard enough. There are ways to work a little smarter. These tips aren’t a cure-all, but they might give you an extra hour of rest each night:
Know what is your job and what isn’t. You shouldn’t be doing people’s work for them, whether they be your colleagues or your students. Remember what Patron Saint Tim Gunn says–some people just want to fail.
Beware excessive time-management timesucks. I love, love, love time management solutions. The best ones stay out of your way, which means that once you set up a system, you can keep using it without revising it.
Remember your primary goals. Your primary goal, as a grad student or professor, is to get published. That’s it. You may need to do work beyond that in order to keep getting paid, but anything that cuts into your writing time is a problem.
Attempt to suppress your guilt. While you want to be a good team player, remember that everyone else needs to step up. Slackers are a problem in both the ivory tower and academia, but you are not their parent, and you shouldn’t cover for them. You’re only hurting yourself. If you don’t meet your primary goal and don’t get a job or a promotion, is the slacker going to let you sleep on her couch? I think not. Even if the slacker is cool with your crashing at her pad, do you really want to? That couch will be filthy.
Look at things from a Hamster perspective. I could write about this, but I’ll save time by pointing to the smarties at Lifehacker. They have a list of tips for how to avoid “fake work” in the Hamster World.
Image of a bee collecting honey from a lavender flower from off2riorob from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
Wow. I had no idea that what I thought was a one-off screed would resonate with so many of you. Clearly, a lot of us have dealt with those who think can bust out a novel on the spot. One commenter made the excellent note that people can write, but not all of them can write well.
I thought about the comment again this past weekend. I was on a business trip. Our tasks require an intense amount of teamwork. When it’s not time for me to do my part of the task, which is based in writing and research, I want to pitch in and help out everyone else. I always feel guilty if I’m not pulling my weight.
I was doing the usual and pitching in, but one of my bosses took me aside and gave me advice that I’ve never heard before:
You don’t always have to pitch in. The [other members of the team] are doing what they’re doing because they’re good at it. You can rest so you can keep doing well. Don’t feel guilty–if they need help, they’ll ask for it.
So I took a break and got out of the way. I admit that i felt guilty, but my boss was right. When someone needed help lifting a recliner (long, long story), they asked me.
When it came time for me to do my thing, I was rested and ready. The people I was working with trusted me to do my job, and that was a beautiful feeling. I had the client’s goals, I had my materials, and I was set. That doesn’t mean that other members of the team didn’t give me feedback, but their feedback wasn’t based on the fact that they thought they could write as well as me. Instead, they were offering feedback from their own business perspectives. I freely admit that I don’t agree with all the feedback, but it’s way easier to handle constructive criticism when you know that the person giving the critique obviously thinks you’re capable.
Photo of Herman Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, and John Houseman during the writing of “Citizen Kane,” 1938. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Is quitting really that bad? In a guest post I did for Worst Professor Ever a few months ago, I fessed up to quitting a PhD program after the MA. I wrote the following:
Yes. I’m a quitter who makes more money and has better job opportunities precisely because I quit.
That’s all true. I do make more money, and I do have better job opportunities, but I realize that I sound, well, prickly and defensive. The subject of quitting brings out that feeling in me.
What’s so bad about quitting? For starters, “quitter” is one of the first insults hurled when a person abandons a challenge. “Quitting” is synonymous with weakness and whining. It’s the low point in any movie, the moment when the protagonist hits rock-bottom. Even in comedies, someone must protect the protagonist from being a quitter, like when Leslie Nielsen rallies Robert Hays into landing that hot-mess airplane and proving he’s a real pilot after all.
Okay, you might not want to quit your job in this fashion, but this is a pretty good “I quit” monologue. Apologies for anyone who have issues with potty mouths.
We at Post Academic are specialists in rejection. I’ve had plenty of cubicle doors slammed in my face out there in the hamster world, but it doesn’t sting quite as much as academic rejection since the stakes are higher.
So I can appreciate Christine Kelly’s Inside Higher Ed article called “After the Failed Interview.” She reminds her readers that recovery after an academic job rejection is a little different from recovery after a Hamster World rejection:
Step one is to acknowledge and work through your emotions. Your support network will tell you “things will be all right” and “this means something better is out there for you” because they want you to feel better quickly. But you have to give yourself time to grieve. That time may be relatively short if you weren’t strongly committed to the position, or it may be longer if it was your dream job. You may need some time to wallow in your disappointment. Ask your support network to let you vent without judging and without trying to make you feel better.
At first, I thought Kelly’s grief metaphor was a bit much. My inner knee-jerk response was, “Dude, settle down. It’s not like you just met the Crypt-Keeper.” Then I realized that I am one of those well-intentioned but pain-in-the-ass people in an academic’s support network who don’t know (or remember) that most jobs come around only once a year, and there aren’t many at that. It’s not like you can keep submitting your resume unless you want to–here’s that death thing again–end that chapter of your life and start a new career.
That thing, whatever it is, is playing a song for the job-that-wasn’t. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
mySpace, that homely social network site that was so popular years ago until it got flooded with bad emo bands, reality stars and garden-variety perverts, is in a full-on death spiral. The company has laid off workers, and some affected workers regret giving up so many hours to keep mySpace alive:
[The CEO of mySpace] and his executive team had just somehow driven hundreds of people to work hard for months, giving 20 hour days, even 48 hour sleepless stints… motivating the team with statements like “do you believe in this company or not?”, “either you’re in or not”, and “look at what we can do when we do it together”….
After the dust settles, the people who were in charge and responsible for the continued failure will still be in charge, with new titles and raises, clearly intent on taking as much personal value as they can from the company before it dies completely at their hands. And the hard working, loyal employees that worked their butts off, took time away from their families to *actually* try to turn the company around by building and launching the new Myspace, will be looking for jobs.
Sound familiar? You lose sleep and ignore your family because you believe in something so, so much. You haul ass only to discover that your efforts are making someone else rich. This lesson should apply to anyone in grad school or on the verge of being postacademic.
I don’t have a problem with busting my butt and pulling long hours when necessary. That said, before I do it, I better be getting something for myself in return, such as a sample for my portfolio or a raise. Going above and beyond the call of duty for any job is ridiculous unless you know you are being altruistic or you know you are getting something out of it. Every second you spend at your job should be furthering your career, not the CEO’s. If that isn’t the case, then you should start sending out your resume and let the CEO/administrator/department chair take advantage of someone else.