Merito-Crazy?

{mer•i•toc•ra•cy} / noun / a system or society in which people have influence or status according to their abilities and achievements rather than because of the social class to which they belong

Why did you choose to enter academia? People give many reasons—to achieve independence, to follow a passionate interest, to open up opportunities for travel and social mobility, to make a meaningful contribution to the world, to name a few. Usually people embarking on their academic path give reasons that are personal and important to them—important enough that they start on a route that can involve financial commitment, significant effort and often other sacrifices.

Along the way there are various forms of evaluation, which rank us against each other and tell a story about who is better and who is worse. Although academic evaluation is measuring only a very limited part of what makes us who we are, it can have a powerful effect in narrowing our field of view to focus more on these “measurables” of success.

The pressure of having to succeed can disconnect us from our original hopes and persuade us to take on instead an ever-changing, never-satisfied definition of success. Success becomes like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—the more we focus on, and put efforts into, getting to the pot of gold, the more the end of the rainbow moves away from us, and the more effort we put in trying to catch up with it. The more effort we put into never quite getting there, the more we can wonder why our efforts are not paying off. This pressure can sometimes have us comparing ourselves with others in ways that diminish us or diminish others. It may leave us feeling constantly anxious or unsatisfied, feeling that someone will find out one day that we are not really good enough unless we work even harder to make up for our inadequacies. The more effort we put into this pursuit of the pot of gold we can’t see, the less we may enjoy the rainbow that we can.

Having studied in academia, but having also worked outside it, I can relate personally to discovering the dread that someone will find out one day I am an imposter or a fake. But my work outside of academia allowed a different perspective, and I can’t help but notice similarities between the mechanisms of the pressure to succeed and other social discourses that cause suffering. The stories about the ideals of “beauty” and “thinness” can talk people into eating disorders; the stories about masculinity can talk men into hiding emotion to appear strong; the stories about “what is normal” can divide people into those who have the privileges and the means to “fit in” and those who can be marginalized, attacked, and dehumanized. In my work outside of academia, exposing these discourses was often a way through which people could start to see more critically the messages they were being “sold” and make a more informed decision about what they were prepared to “buy into” and what they were not. It’s a bit like reading a research paper—you don’t accept everything that is written down without some critical analysis. Why should we just accept uncritically the social messages around us? In academia—and more so in institutions with impressive reputations (or those which aspire to be such)—there is a story about meritocracy, which provides a backdrop against which the ever-shifting bar of success is constructed, and within which we can be invited into a process of diminishing comparisons that twist the challenges of the environment into a sense of internal failure.

When the threat of failure looms large, it gets in the way of learning. Instead of finding out what we can learn from all varieties of experience, we can see failure as an indication that we are personally deficient, so we start to avoid failure instead of embracing the ways it can help us develop. In this process we can lose touch with our original reasons for setting off on the path we have.

Johannes Haushofer from Princeton University published his “CV of failures”1 this year following on from an article2 by Melanie Stefan in Nature in 2010 where she reflected that the bulk of her academic effort is spent doing things which fail; this is the real experience of an academic meritocracy. She gives the example of a fellowship application with a 15% success rate, meaning that for every “success” she spends six times as long on things that fail. Yet the dominance of success stories, and the ways this is reflected in CVs, publications, and conference presentations paints an unrealistic story. Her idea of developing your own alternative “failure CV” is a way to debunk the uncritical acceptance of the ‘success story’ and it can be helpful in reminding us the reason we started and what has helped to keep us persisting. In the article, she says:

“It will be six times as long as your normal CV. It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist—and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again.”

Another challenge to the story that success is good and failure is to be avoided can be found at the Resilience Project at Stanford University,3 which contains videos of alumni, faculty, and students exploring the idea of their own failures as essential to learning. People contribute their stories to inspire others “to shake off rejection and try again.” It’s well worth half an hour, whether you are feeling despondent or inspired!

We are very fortunate that Adina Glickman, the originator of the Stanford Resilience Project, will visit OIST in the week of 19th December, so watch TIDA and sign up for her talks.


References:

1Johannes Haushofer, “CV of Failures,” Princeton University, last modified April 2016. https://www.princeton.edu/~joha/Johannes_Haushofer_CV_of_Failures.pdf

2 Melanie Stefan, “CV of Failure,” Nature 468 (2010): 467.

3 ”The Resilience Project,” Princeton University, last modified July 7, 2016. https://undergrad.stanford.edu/resilience

Laura Sanger is from the UK and has been in Okinawa for two years working in the Ganjuu Wellbeing Service. She really loves her job and feels very fortunate that people give her the chance to share in their ideas, plans, conversations, and what is important to them in life. Laura is currently doing a masters in narrative therapy.

If you are interested in contributing to an OIST effort to critically engage with ideas about success and failure and to think about ways to inspire others to do the same, please contact Laura at the Ganjuu Wellbeing Service at laura. sanger@oist.jp to find out more (exposure is not essential)!