Friday, February 09, 2007

Upheaval

That's the word: upheaval

A year ago, I had a conversation with Tasse Plein, in which he spoke of my self-sufficiency and confidence, and about what one needs to do to get ahead in academia. I wrote about it here and here. I realized something yesterday about how that conversation affected me. The idea that I needed to fit into the pecking order, that I needed to act in accord with my status (as an unemployed junior academic), that I needed to convince others that I needed them, that I was dependent upon them for letters, for contacts, that this was the path to a job, seems to have cowered me. I mentioned this in an email yesterday to my coach Paul. I wrote:
Tasse Plein had said something to me a while back that comes up now as I seek mentors, gurus, friends, and contacts. He said that he always saw me as someone who didn't need a lot of hand-holding, that I would do just fine on my own, but that in academia we need others, we need their letters and recommendations. He suggested that I might need to make it clear to him and others that I really did need them. Though it was clearly not his intention, I think I felt put down a bit by it, not insulted really, just cowered. He said that in academia people expect you to behave according to your status, and my status (like it or not) was in need of the largess of others.
Paul's response was a bit of a shock:
AVOID PEOPLE LIKE THIS AT ALL COSTS.
DO NOT SPEND TIME WITH THEM IN ANY FASHION.
Oh my! Now, while I'll chalk up his dictat as a bit hasty, it makes me wonder. Look, this is one aspect of Tasse and my relationship to him. In some ways he's been a good mentor and friend. Truth be told, in other ways he's not been. I've written about silence, and the lack of feedback. I know that is what he has given me at times. I've accepted it because he is human, and because his life is understandably not focused solely on my success.

I also understand Paul's point: at the moment, I'm stuck. The point of our interactions, the motivation behind these coachings, is to get me unstuck. What Paul pointed out in our initial conversation was that I need to surround myself with people who will help me succeed, and avoid those who will bring me down. In that light, Tasse is a member of my old set.

Of course, what I know is that I am responsible for how I take people and their comments. Sure, I should avoid the cycles that bring me down. But... I learned a while ago that the best way to deal with people is to have clear expectations of them. I recall a friend of mine, perhaps my best friend during my Master's program. We were both studying the same thing. But we were different, very different. He was conservative in politics and religion, and I... well, NOT! And yet, I learned that as long as I had a clear understanding of what I expected of our friendship, there really was a great deal we could both gain by it.

That said, I'm not sure I'm ready (or willing) to cut all ties to Tasse Plein. He has been a mentor at times (though arguably an ineffective one). But what's more, he is also a friend. I'd like to get past my present failed state, reach the point where I am successful and satisfied in my career, enough to approach Tasse and others merely as a friend, not as a dependent. Perhaps what I need most of all is to regain my independence. It's not Tasse who is the problem, but the relationship in my mind that has developed.

4 comments:

Greg said...

I would agree with your instinct. I have received advice from people I admire, that ultimately I disagreed with and did not follow. I don't think that means cutting all ties. It just means you have to judge others' opinions, and weigh them against conflicting opinions (perhaps even including your own).

timna said...

I wonder if Tasse Plein's approach might be considered a good one for the academic search, but quite inappropriate for searches outside? As such, the coach's advice makes sense that you've got to avoid that supplicant position that we are trained to do so well in academe, in order to convince folks in the other areas that you are fully independent and ready to contribute and function in their endeavors.
maybe?

undine said...

I understand the "stay positive" mantra, but it seems to me that you're carefully considering various points of view, which is a good thing. As Jon Stewart said once about another "stay positive" refusal to look at alternative perspectives, if you're not paying attention to other perspectives, you can "stay positive" and run headlong into a brick wall that didn't fit the "positive" paradigm.

ArticulateDad said...

Thanks for your comments. Undine's in particular made me think of a particular American political figure who's spent most of the past six years surrounding himself with yes-men, carefully protected by his cronies from any dissenting opinions.

There is a danger in getting only positive feedback. Though it does boost one's self-confidence. I mentioned recently Paul's question regarding how many small firms I had applied to.

What he went on to say was that it might do me some good to apply to a few firms where they'd beg me to go work for them, where they'd be thrilled by my interest. His point was, whether I wound up taking such jobs or not, it would do me some good to feel wanted again, by somebody.

I think he's right. There's a difference it would seem between burying one's head in the sand, ignoring all indications that one is "running headlong into a brick wall," and finding a middle ground to counteract the past couple years of rejection, depression, and doubt.

It's a balance between holding on to those warnings and red flags, while seeking the feel good positives that will get me past those doubts. That's the task at hand.