I am somewhat allergic to celebrity. I will admit that my tendency is to avoid things that everyone is reading and talking about. However, as I was writing about peer review for my next Short Guide, I realized I needed to do some reading with a particular focus on mindsets and vulnerability. I started with Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. What she says about shame, vulnerability, and innovation is directly relevant to academic life. She’s writing for a larger audience so she doesn’t make these connections to academia explicit but there are moments where I find myself just nodding my head.
The key thing about shame is that it focuses on the person rather than the action. (This is crucial to Carol Dweck’s work on fixed vs growth mindsets, too.) Shame gets tied up with your sense of worthiness. The connections to perfectionism and imposter syndrome are pretty obvious. However, as Brown points out, innovation requires vulnerability. In academia we don’t tend to call it “innovation”, preferring “originality” or “a contribution to knowledge” but it’s basically the same. Pursuing your really big ideas means making yourself vulnerable, or risking shame.
When Brown starts talking about organizational cultures that thrive on shame, it becomes clear why so many people are playing small in academia. Even if you happen to work in a well managed department that doesn’t use shame as a management strategy, it’s highly likely that you have experienced shaming around your academic work at some point during your life. This may have come from teachers or it may have come from family members. Educational policy in the past 10-20 years has also relied heavily on shame (e.g. league tables of schools based on standardized test scores).
Interestingly, Brown lists “crazy-busy” along with perfectionism as a numbing strategy. She also talks about the importance of engagement and characterises the impact of shame based cultures as creating disengagement. Although she doesn’t make the connection explicitly, I got thinking about meaningfulness and what I’ve written about confidence. This was reinforced by a chapter in Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski focusing on the importance of meaning in countering burnout. (I’ll write more about that soon.)
Reading Brown’s book has helped me better articulate how I approach coaching. My approach is all about countering shame, normalizing difficulty, missteps and outright failures without invoking shame, celebrating partial victories and growth, and encouraging you to dream big rather than play small.
It makes me angry that so many academics seem to think that shame and bullying are the only way to manage people. Many self-management strategies (or “productivity tips”) also rely on shaming. You might not have any control over whether your colleagues use shame to control and manage. But you certainly have control over whether you shame yourself.
I can help you navigate vulnerability in your particular situation because sometimes it isn’t safe to be vulnerable even if you know that’s what’s required to move forward. I can help you figure out how to do things differently when you manage yourself and when you manage others (whether in a role like head of department or just as someone who has TAs or RAs). I am on your side so you can be vulnerable with me in order to figure out what your options are, even in an organizational culture that uses shame as a management strategy (or where there is outright bullying).
Books referred to:
Brené Brown (2012) Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead Penguin Life.
Carol Dweck (2017) Mindset: changing the way you think to fulfil your potential updated edition, Robinson (US publisher is Random House)
Emily & Amelia Nagoski (2019) Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle Vermillion (US publisher is Random House)
Jo VanEvery (2019) Peer Review (A Short Guide) (self-published)
A version of this post was sent to my newsletter list in March 2019. It has been edited. Sign up for the newsletter.