The feeling of being behind

I’m certain anyone who’s worked in academia has felt ‘behind’. I would bet many early career academics feel this way constantly.

I admit that I have (and still) get myself into a headspace where I’m saying things like “I should be doing more” or “this should be done by now.” My university recently opened our new state-of-the-art library and learning centre – filled to the brim with exciting new technologies and teaching spaces. While I can’t speak for my colleagues, I feel there’s more pressure to deliver this Fall. However, a couple of recent experiences have grounded my expectations and made me take pause.

I recently read a 2016 blog post by Zack Kanter which outlines why we feel behind. Most of us have a vision of our perfect self and we constantly compare ourselves to this vision. Kanter’s summary is perfect.

The question that finally helped me break the cycle was: behind compared to what? Some alternate-reality version of yourself without flaws, a relentless Terminator on the Perfect Course of Life, chasing down and slaying goals and if you stop to catch your breath for one second the cyborg-take-no-prisoners-has-no-bad-days-or-relationship-or-family-issues-and-never-binge-watches-Netflix ‘you’ will just fly by and you will never be able to catch up no matter how hard you try?

I will tell you a secret. There is no other version of yourself, there is only the version sitting here right now. You are not behind (or, for that matter, ahead): you are exactly where you are supposed to be. So take a deep breath and relax.

The perfect version of myself has already published the two research projects I’m currently working on, planned all his classes, and has pre-read all the committee materials. But, putting unnecessary pressure on one’s self-doesn’t lead to greater productivity.

During a recent conversation with a colleague, this feeling of being ‘behind’ came up. She asked me about my current research projects and what teaching strategies I planned on implementing, to which I provided a lengthy explanation. Her reply was, “You’re doing a lot! You should slow down.” I was taken aback. Her comment was followed by a book recommendation – The Slow Professor. The book argues that “corporatization has engendered a pervasive time pressure” in academic life. In the book’s ‘slow manifesto’, the authors say this:

While slowness has been celebrated in architecture, urban life, and personal relations, it has not yet found its way into education. Yet, if there’s one sector in society which should be cultivating deep thought, it is academic teachers… Slow Professors advocate deliberation over acceleration. We need time to think, and so do our students.

It’s ok to stop and think. It’s ok to breathe. I still think being ambitious and productive are good goals. So instead of feeling behind, I’m feeling motivated. The difference? Tempering expectations. Assume what you want to achieve will take longer than you think. Learn to appreciate the small accomplishments along the way.

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