Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Thinking about Motivation and Work

Contrary to many of my posts where I talk about motivation, I won't be talking about my lack of it today:) See, it turns out I'm incredibly motivated at the start of this academic year, which, I've got to say, was not something I'd been expecting.

Given the fact that I just earned tenure and that my book came out last year, I'd thought (when I thought about it at all) that I'd be in a post-book, post-tenure funk. I'd fantasized about what it would be like to rest on my laurels for a year or two, whether that would be depressing or liberating, and what I was going to do with all of that free time on my hands, with no major research project on the table and with the sudden ability to say no to irritating things.

But here I am, on the cusp of beginning my seventh year as a college professor (which is just astonishing to me, I have to say, that I'm at this point - that after this year I will have been a working college professor longer than I was in graduate school) and somehow I don't see this "funk" thing materializing. I began the year with nothing going on research-wise (aside from an outstanding revise and resubmit) and now I've got my next book project formulated, I've got two articles forthcoming, a book review forthcoming, and that revise and resubmit has been accepted with minor revisions (which I really need to knock out this week). I'll be teaching a class in our fledgling MA program for the first time - a new class that has me ridiculously excited and slightly terrified. I'm following through with all of the work in the spring that I did to push revisions to our undergraduate major through, and this work has led me toward working on a Major University-Wide Curriculum Issue, and suddenly I'm like this Person who's a mover and a shaker in the campus community. What. The. Hell.

I mean, seriously. What happened to the whole "resting on my laurels" plan? Why am I so energized?

Not that I'm complaining. I am certainly not complaining. This is like this huge and wonderful surprise. But I don't really get where it's coming from, and I'm more than a little bit worried that I'll hit October and somehow all of this energy will disappear. Except I don't think that it will. I feel (dare I say it?) like things have, with little planning on my part, clicked into place. Like, although it sounds cheesy, that this is what I've been working toward all this time.

(And yes, I recognize that it's a little bit nutso to have been working all of this time toward more work, but apparently this is who I am.)

So what's different? Because I'll admit, in the past couple of years I've been feeling pretty worn out. And I think that this is why I'd just assumed that I'd collapse upon the book coming out and upon earning tenure. And you know, I did, kind of. From like January through April. I mean, I was getting things done, but a lot of things also fell by the wayside. But my dad also died in that time, and that was traumatic, and then, well, I felt like I needed to stop with the collapsing. It was not making me feel better. Not at all.

As I've been reflecting on this stuff, one thing that keeps occurring to me is that a primary factor in my attitude as I embark on my first year post-tenure is that external markers do not motivate me. Throughout my time on the tenure track, I actively resented having to produce evidence of my productivity, and I actively resented feeling like I did a lot of things just to hit goals that other people said I should hit. In that regard, I was sort of right that tenure would feel like sort of a hollow achievement when all was said and done. I mean, don't get me wrong, I was happy to achieve it, but at the same time, it also felt like I'd just sort of played the game and followed the rules and that it had little connection to who I actually am at the end of the day.

This has always been true for me. Throughout high school and college, I was a fairly uneven student. I was not at all motivated by grades. So if I liked a class, and if I was interested in it, and if I respected the professor, I worked like a maniac and did amazingly well. If I wasn't that into it? If I decided that the professor was a ninny? Um, let's just say that my lack of motivation translated into less than stellar performance. Like C and D sort of performance in some cases. And it didn't bother me. What mattered to me was that I was doing stuff that I thought was worthwhile, and that I felt like I got real acknowledgment (not just a particular grade) when I threw myself into something. I wanted confirmation of what I knew I was doing well - and praise and flattery for it from people whom I respected - but the source of my motivation was not - and still is not - outside of myself.

If I try, I can trace this way of looking at work and achievement to a few things:
  • Massive self-absorption due to being raised as an only child.
  • A mother who regularly cautioned against "measuring with a yardstick," comparing my performance or achievement to that of other people. Going along with the it's bad to evaluate one's own worth or success in terms of other people, she was also a mother who was a firm believer in the idea that as long as one tried one's best that this in itself was its own reward. She wanted me to do well, but she was never focused on grades as a measure of that, nor was there ever this expectation that I had to be perfect in terms of academic performance. She was much more interested in me being a well-rounded person.
  • I'm my own worst critic. At the end of the day, I have higher standards for myself than most other people have for me. And this perhaps is why I find having to meet other people's standards so irritating: I think other people's standards are stupid and beside the point. I mean, I do it, because one has to, but I don't like it, and it doesn't motivate me. It's just jumping through meaningless hoops.
But so this is the big shocker about having tenure, as opposed to working toward it. It's like this huge weight has been lifted off of me. I'm totally in charge of my own destiny now. I don't need to please anybody but myself. It's like I've been let off of what felt a lot of times like a very short leash.

And so for the first time really since beginning graduate school I feel like I am free to pursue what interests me regardless of how it looks on paper. And for me, that's not depressing or scary - or if it is scary, it's a good kind of scary. I don't actually want to rest on my laurels. I want to use this new freedom to do cool stuff. Some of that cool stuff has nothing to do with work, but it turns out there's a lot of work that I really want to do and that I really take pleasure in and find incredibly exciting. And I get to do it without hearing a clock ticking in the background. I get to do it without any sort of real or imagined pressure.

And it is true, I do get to pick and choose what I do a heck of a lot more than I ever have since I was an undergraduate. I may not be resting on my laurels, but I'm also a whole heck of a lot freer to refuse stuff that I think sucks. Now, luckily, the stuff that I enjoy is also stuff that other people don't, so I'm still a good department and university citizen, which does matter to me. And also, the stuff I most enjoy doing I wasn't really able to do before tenure, so it's like this whole new world has opened up before me, wherein I finally get to sit at the grown-up table and do work that I really think matters.

The only sucky thing about this is that it means a lot more meetings. Meetings blow. At least, though, it turns out, when you're doing really important fancy stuff that only the tenured can do, the meetings typically don't last beyond an hour. (Why is it that a meeting regarding a Major University-Wide Curriculum Issue can take care of a full agenda in an hour while a meeting regarding planning a student event drags on and on? 'Tis a mystery.)


gwinne said...

This is interesting. I might write my own post on going up for tenure next year (my stuff is due to outside readers in July 2010). I think I'll really like life after tenure, for the kinds of reasons you discuss. Too often I feel like the work that I do is entirely disconnected from the "reward system" of annual review and tenure. And I feel like I've made some choices about which research projects to pursue based on how they will come across to a tenure committee, instead of doing what it is I really want to do. We'll see, I guess...

Dr. Crazy said...

You know, I think it's hard to anticipate how tenure will affect you until you're there. I think perhaps my sense of happiness has to do at least in part with the fact that I'd set myself up for the let-down - so the fact that I have any motivation and energy at all right now is a total shock :) But yes, I do think that the tenure system does color our approach to our work, even if only in a subconscious way. I don't think that I ever consciously designed a research project around the tenure bid, for example, but nevertheless, I do think that the projects that I pursued were always informed by the fact that in the back of my mind tenure loomed. The thing I notice more than that, though, is how service was shaped for me while pre-tenure by the tenure process, and I think that contributed a lot to my hatred of many of the things that I did. I'm working harder right now service-wise than I probably ever have, but I don't resent it the way I've resented doing less time-intensive (and less interesting) things. At any rate, good luck with putting your stuff together! Seriously? The best thing about HAVING tenure? Not having to do that. Totally.

H said...

Hmmm. I had a post-tenure funk. Oh no! I'm stuck HERE in the land of square holes into which my round-peggedness does not fit. I got better, for a while at least

I also was an erratic student, but none of your bulletted reasons are true of me. I have an older brother. My parents worried about grades. In fact they worried about them to the point of giving away our TV because they thought it negatively effected my brother's grades. So, I grew up with no TV. And I worry that I am not my own worst critic.

I wonder how many other profs were students who got alternately the highest grade in the class sometimes, and were average or even failed other times.