Sunday, August 9, 2015

The 3 things I didn’t know I’d love about being a prof

by Kai Chan
[This is part 2 of 2. Read part 1 here. A part 3 was added here.]

After tossing sleeplessly on the night of my 40th birthday in my existential crisis, I discovered that the answer to “Why am I still a prof?” is that there are three things that I didn’t know that I’d cherish about being a professor. I knew that I loved the thrill of teaching, mentoring, and the pursuit of knowledge, and that I would love and respect my students and colleagues, but I didn’t appreciate the extent to which I would benefit from these three things.

1.     The freedom to fail. I’ve had many zany ideas over the years. A bunch of them haven’t panned out. They were struck down by reviewers, editors, and grant selection committees, or they simply died as I realized they just weren't resonating with others. While rejection often seems to be about not properly understanding the nature of the venue/opportunity (the journal, the grant program), it’s also true that I have learned tons from my failures, and academia is amazingly forgiving of such failures. Tenure is a particular blessing here. I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity to continue to experiment, to fail, and to learn from that failure.
Me at 40, sporting my birthday shirt
from Hadi Dowlatabadi: monetary
symbols and "Ecosystem Services",
"the bees' buzz" and "It's only money".

2.     The opportunity to contribute, sometimes importantly, to brilliant young leaders’ lives and thinking, when key elements of their personal and professional identities are most being shaped. I knew that I’d love mentoring students, but I hadn’t appreciated how foundational a role my own mentors had had on me, or how much I would cherish the privilege to serve in that role for young superstars, full of passion and integrity. Like many others, I find nothing more satisfying than helping others reach or elevate their potential (see this and this great post from my students on their struggles).

3.     The freedom to meander towards deeply synthetic insights about the world around us. Ten years ago, I thought I knew how we could protect biodiversity and the conditions for sustained human thriving. Now, after my intentional meanderings with students and colleagues through the science of human cognition, behavior, and the study of values, I know I was wrong. Now I have a suite of new ideas (re: social movements and offsetting, informed deeply by my journey, and this time I’m sure I’m right. ;)
I still don't know if I was right in 2005 in thinking that a tenure-track position was my best route to making the world a better place, but it has revealed some absolutely critical benefits that I didn’t anticipate, and insights toward potentially transformative real-world impacts that are still in the making.

P.S. Sarah Klain rightly pointed to my over-use of 'best'. I may not agree entirely with the metrics of academia, but clearly I have largely absorbed the obsession with optimization! I am content in knowing that the last ten years have been joyful, enriching, and productive, and I have contributed directly to real-world issues (see here, here, Vancouver Sun, Georgia Straight, and WWF blog), and to various organizations (e.g., IPBES, see here and here) and every level of government. This effort to optimize is (1) a rhetorical device, and (2) an exercise to evaluate choices for the future towards fulfilling my own potential. Although I have unparalleled job security--a tremendous privilege--I won't let myself rest on my laurels.

1 comment:

  1. Reflection on experiences, successes and failures, are critical to learning and understanding. Always an important component of analysis. Continue this process and the pursuit of such worthwhile goals. Happy Birthday and may there be many more!