Julie’s Week 13: A Credit Line at the Jerk Store

In the real world, being an overachiever is a fairly uncommon quality. Once leaving school, you might meet only a handful of overachievers in your lifetime. That’s not to say everyone else you meet is stupid; what it really means is that only a handful of people have chosen to measure themselves in adulthood with the same criteria children are defined by in school. It’s not bad. It’s just a really singular, specific system, only one among many, and many choose not to use it as their own personal measuring stick.

thejerkoriginalIn academia, however, being an overachiever is a necessity. In fact, it’s the lowest-common-denominator, the absolute minimum requirement one needs to have any hope of moving up from the basement level. Achievement becomes a race among elites, with status markers wholly unlike those used in the real world. In academia, you are only as good as your next publication, your next big scientific breakthrough, or your next grant money intake. It should come as no surprise, then, that the most common emotional state for academics is a volatile combination of fragile insecurity and overwhelming egotism. Twelve years after first entering academia as a 23-year-old MA student, this is certainly where I again find myself. Jealous. Whiny. Catty. Self-righteous and obnoxious. Panicky and despairing. My social media posts vacillate between smug humblebrags and sloppy goodbye-cruel-world vagueness. I am, well, a jerk.

Sudden family tragedy and conversations with old, pre-academia friends have brought my awareness of the real world back with a vengeance. I’m sick of myself, and of the way I’ve learned how to act over the years. I’ve been trying to step outside myself and watch how I act (especially at conferences), and I’m not impressed. I need to be less narcissistic, develop greater empathy, quit interrupting people, listen more. Thankfully, Lifehacker has some strategies for that. The tips for avoiding conversation narcissism seem particularly helpful for me, as I tend to always dominate conversations. So, to concretize my efforts, I’m going to try to do the following this week:

  1. Avoid talking about my favorite topics when in conversation with others. This seems absolutely key for me, as I often go off on conversational benders about particular things and suddenly everyone looks annoyed and bored.
  2. Ask those I speak with questions about what they think or feel. My normal response is to chime in about myself, even when I’m not trying to dominate the conversation. Instead, I’ll work on making questioning the default conversational strategy.
  3. Reflect at the end of the work day on the conversations I had and how I acted. I can’t improve unless I know where I’ve been and where I am now.

I’m sure this isn’t the only time this year I’ll work on being less of a jerk. Academic jerkhood is a pretty big and deep-seated problem, so I think I’ll need more passes at it later on. For now, checking my conversational style is a good place to start on this journey to stop overstocking the jerk store.

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