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I've been there

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

Welcome back, STANDOUT Professors and friends! I’m so glad to see you. :)

I want to start with a disclaimer on the title of today’s post. I’d never presume to fully understand another person’s experience. We each have our own stories and perspectives. Even when we’ve been in exactly the same place at exactly the same time, our experiences will often differ… in some cases dramatically.

So, when I say, “I’ve been there,” I really mean, “I remember vividly what it’s like to be an assistant professor, and incidentally, I’ve also been through the wringer a few times both personally and professionally, so I may have some sense of things that can help.” This sentiment is captured beautifully in one of my favorite scenes from The West Wing, a TV show that I love… and that probably aired before many of you would have been interested. In an episode called Noël, Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) is going through a really rough time, and his friend/colleague Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer) tells him the following story:

This guy's walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, "Hey you, can you help me out?" The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up "Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. "Hey Joe, it's me. Can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here." The friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out."

That final line gets me every time. I’m a total sucker for selfless displays of solidarity and support. And I suppose it’s particularly meaningful because I’ve been in my share of holes. We all have. Sometimes those holes are pretty easy to climb out of, and sometimes they aren’t. Some are even of our own making, at least in my case. And even when I didn’t create them, I’ve often made them deeper by telling myself unhelpful stories about how and why I ended up there. I’ve been completely stressed out and overwhelmed more times than I could possibly count, especially when I was an assistant professor. The demands of adjusting to a job with somewhat nebulous expectations, the sense that I was frequently under scrutiny, and the concern that I wouldn’t be able to build a tenurable research record all contributed to my worry. I also gave birth to my first baby 8 weeks before starting my first academic job, and when I came up for tenure 7 years later (with 2 kids by that point), I was in the midst of a divorce. That felt like an especially deep hole.

I’m not telling you this because I want to make this post all about me. Quite the contrary, I want the focus to be on you and how to make your life and your career easier, happier, and more fulfilling. I’m sharing this because I think that one of the biggest mistakes we make in academia is not revealing our struggles, anxieties, and missteps for fear of being judged as not enough… not smart enough, not dedicated enough, not good enough. And I see this as a HUGE miss. The unwillingness of many of our senior colleagues and leaders to be vulnerable creates a culture in which we (especially as assistant professors) feel the need to stuff our insecurities, put on a brave face, and pretend that we are 100% confident 100% of the time. And that’s just not true. In fact, it’s not even possible. It’s a ridiculous expectation. Worse, it isn’t even desirable. If our goal as scholars—and as people—is to learn and grow, then we need to take risks and we need to fail.

Brené Brown, a well-known expert on the topic of vulnerability, speaks of the trust, creativity, innovation, and belonging that become possible only when we risk emotional exposure. She explains that “our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection” (Daring Greatly). Does this mean that we need to run around baring our souls to all of our colleagues? Absolutely not. The introverts among us can heave a collective sigh of relief. :)

So what can we do? First, I’d like to offer some reassurance. You didn’t dig the assistant-professor-stress hole yourself. In one of the best popular press articles I’ve read on the imposter syndrome, Svenja Weber and Gianpiero Petriglieri explain that “in the workplace, the roots of insecurity are often found around us, not within us.” In other words, we all suffer from insecurity every once in a while, but when we operate within a culture in which confidence is king and vulnerability is confused for weakness, we may struggle to establish the meaningful, supportive relationships that help to combat insecurity. Things can become even more complex when we add the uncertainty of shifting expectations and the pressure of trying to fit in when we are different from our colleagues. Collectively, these experiences can ramp up our self-doubt, leaving us feeling de-energized and unmotivated.

It may surprise (and disappoint) you to know that this self-doubt doesn’t disappear when you get tenure. While the effects described above are likely to hit assistant professors hardest, many senior faculty members are just as worried and uncertain as you are… they just aren’t showing it. And of course they don’t have the added pressure of a tenure clock ticking over their heads. The point I’m trying to make is that you’re in good company. Why not take full advantage of that by finding a colleague (or two or three!) with whom you can be vulnerable... someone who will remind you that you are an outstanding scholar, teacher, and person who is making a huge difference in the world just by being present and being yourself, replete with flaws, imperfections, and momentary failings. I’ve been amazed by the difference these relationships have made in my life and how significantly a quick conversation can lighten my emotional load.

Taking time to get centered, reminding ourselves what’s really important, and shifting our self-talk can all help, too. We’ll spend more time on these topics in future posts. In the meantime, I’d recommend taking 2 minutes to watch the West Wing scene. Just Google <West Wing Leo hole>. And if you’re feeling really ambitious—or really unambitious depending on your perspective ;) —watch the whole series. I think you’ll agree that it’s downtime well spent.

Thanks, as always, for making the time! I hope to see you again soon.

Take good care until then,


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