I’d like some lemonade with my advice, please

9 May 2014, 1333 EDT

lemonadeAs a junior faculty member, I am not in a position to turn down advice. Fortunately, I receive good advice from mentors, colleagues, and friends.  I am very thankful. Lately, I have also been getting advice from a few organizations for faculty development. They provide free tips on writing and productivity, navigating the job market, and balancing responsibilities as well as seek to debunk some of the myths about success in the academia. On average, their advice has been fairly useful (I have not signed up for paid services, and I certainly do not have a representative sample here).

But based on my experience, I take issue with the advice industry’s focus on mistakes. A laundry of list of mistakes junior faculty must avoid seems ubiquitous: taking on service, supervising theses, investing too much into your current institution, working on multiple projects at once, not eating healthy, not seeking out mentors, not having work-life balance… Avoid these mistakes!

Even though mistakes are to a certain degree subjectively and socially constructed, of course, much of this makes sense. And I recognize that advice by nature is about do’s and don’ts. However, the skeptic in me worries that the emphasis on mistakes could also be counter-productive. In her book criticizing the self-help industry in the U.S., Wendy Kaminer argues that the self-help market has caused many individuals to feel dysfunctional. The self-help society, Kaminer notes, has created a culture of victimization by constantly telling people there is something wrong with them and they need to be fixed.

I think the focus on mistakes could produce a similar outcome. It could make junior faculty feel unduly dysfunctional. It could even trigger a sense of desperation if one is stuck with the consequences of a mistake for some time. I wish faculty development organizations would do a better job of encouraging junior faculty to see their strengths and adaptability in addition to their mistakes. I wish they would draw insights from positive psychology.

Pioneered by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the field of positive psychology developed as a reaction to the pathology-oriented focus of traditional psychology in the late 1990s. The Positive Psychology Center at Penn defines it as “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Seligman writes: “Psychology is not just the study of disease, weakness, and damage; it also is the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is wrong; it also is building what is right.” Therefore, the field of positive psychology seeks to understand and facilitate the skillful ways humans adjust to their circumstances and generate positive and fulfilling experiences (see the special issue in the American Psychologist, especially the introduction). Put differently, positive psychology examines why and how people make lemonade.

Positive psychology will not tell us to meditate our way through tenure and promotion. Neither will it tell us to neglect personal and professional growth. Positive psychology is also not about wishful thinking. But it will encourage us to appreciate our strengths -within reason- and focus on the positive as we improve ourselves. So, it will say:

If you are stuck on a committee, explore collaboration opportunities with other members.

If you have been enjoying the rewards of supervising a dissertation, pat yourself on the back for having this attitude.

If you have been eating a can of beans for dinner in the last few weeks of the semester, thank yourself for jumpstarting your summer diet. Try the low-sodium version.


Image source: The Duck Song (by Bryant Oden) video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmH2J9-50Gc