Celebrating other academics' accomplishments
Once I was the guest of a family in Boston. As I fixed myself something to drink, my host, who was also in the kitchen, said to me: “Someone who heard you at a conference said that you delivered a great lecture. I won’t say more, so I won’t make you overly proud of yourself.” He had hardly finished his sentence when I burst into tears. His wife, startled, hurried to comfort me. “Overly proud?” I repeated his words. “After being repeatedly stabbed in the back at the conference, any kind word is like cool water to a weary soul. My self-image has been deeply damaged. So many of my articles and scholarship applications have been rejected. I am far - very far - from being proud. I only wish people would stop trying to break me.”
I have been thinking about this incident ever since. We expect painful attacks, but it’s far from obvious that we will receive any praise. Why is that?
I used to assume it was a matter of limited resources. If there are limited research budgets, limited jobs, and a limited number of articles that can be accepted by each journal, then inevitably we are competing for the same resources. Thus, if someone gets something that I didn’t get, I feel that person took something from me, something I think should be mine. But I wonder, without resorting to religious or Buddhist ideas about the cosmic structure, if this is necessarily true?
This question touches on one of the reasons that I do not allow my children (or myself) to watch reality television shows. This capitalist jungle teaches us to compete. Aside from its inherent unfairness, it does not exist everywhere. The terrifying perception that everyone is competing with each other and only one person can win is damaging to the very roots of society. I once told my students to think of our seminar as a family meal. I hope they won’t have to all divide up the same portion of tofu (or schnitzel, as they suggested), and that there would be enough for everyone. The same goes for the seminar: if everyone writes an excellent paper, I don’t expect there has to be a ‘normal distribution’ (there are less than thirty students in the class). It is possible for everyone to get an A – if they work hard.
But in academia, working hard is not enough.
The resources really are limited. Not everyone can be accepted for everything. But does this mean that our automatic response must be resentment of other people’s accomplishments?
Perhaps this question highlights the line between jealousy and pride in others’ accomplishments. Jealousy stems from the painful feeling that someone else got something that I think should be mine. The opposite reaction is accepting that other people may get things that I want - and there is value in being happy for them. We must train ourselves to have this response, which does not come easily, but is worth the effort. Send a congratulatory email when you see a colleague has published a new article. Congratulate a peer on receiving a scholarship. Call and simply say, “I’m happy for you.”
Maybe it's a fantasy, but I sometimes think that if we could manage to feel a sense of pride in each other’s accomplishments, the resources will eventually become less limited.
Naturally, I don’t imagine that tomorrow the Planning and Budgeting Committees will start showering us with money. But maybe if we allow ourselves to be guided by a sense of pride in others’ accomplishments, rather than jealousy, the competition will become fairer, more pleasant, and perhaps even more humane?
So, I offer my heartfelt congratulations to everyone who has had an article accepted, who received a scholarship, who managed to finish a chapter or even a paragraph in their doctorate thesis. I offer some cool water to their weary souls. Together we can progress, succeed, and expand the circle so there is a place for everyone.
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