Tomorrow I retire from Cornell; it will be two days after I turned 59. My Mom and Dad both retired from their union jobs within days of their birthdays, and I never remember them saying much about their jobs after that day. Someone else took my Dad’s place on the production line, and someone else took my Mom’s place filing papers.
But academia is different. It’s one profession you never really have to retire from. A lot of us have a lot to say, and we’re passionate about saying it even when we’re officially through with our job. Many academics imagine themselves retiring in their early 70s, and even them maybe only transitioning to half-time until they befuddle us by changing the lock on our office.
Even retirement parties are somewhat pro forma. If you feel you have a calling for academia, you don’t feel any different the day after you retire. I just had my retirement party last month and it seemed like a birthday party, except that people gave speeches and gave me a nice, cherry wood captain’s chair with the Cornell logo on the front and a thoughtful personalized little metal plaque on the back of it.
In 30 years of academia, I only once went to a retirement party that didn’t just seem like was another birthday party for the person who was retiring but who was going to be at work again tomorrow at they exact same time they always are. But seeing this one retirement party had a striking effect on me. It happened about 15 years ago, and I was asked to be one of two faculty speakers at the annual Spring meeting of the university’s Business Advisory Committee; it was also doubling as a retirement party for an amazing man.
He was one of the most notable economists at the University. He occupied a rare niche at the intersection of economics, real estate, finance, and law. He was widely published, widely influential, and even his economist colleagues spoke of him in awe. This year was his retirement year, and his speech would perhaps be his Last Waltz in front of a group like this. We got to know each other throughout the day and up through the closing reception.
On the rainy long ride home, we sat next to each other in the back of the dark and quiet chartered bus. I asked him which of his many accomplishments he most proud of, and which had the most impact. At one point, however, I asked a question that was not met with the same warmth and candor. I asked, "In light of all of the remarkable things you’ve accomplished so far in your career, what’s your biggest professional regret?"
Then he eventually said, "I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, I would do everything pretty much the same way." After another long pause he then recanted a bit and said something like this:
I said, “Would it be easier for people to see your big picture if you were to write a book that pulled all of this together? That way, everything would be in one place and you could connect all the dots.” He chuckled and immediately dismissed this, “I don’t know about marketing, but in economics they don’t reward books.”
After 45 years of research, here was a great man who was retiring with one needless regret. Yet, what he let get in his way was how he would be rewarded or whether a colleague might think he was simplifying his research for the amateurs. It seemed to me that writing a book would have been a potentially transforming project.
The metaphor that is relevant for us is not the metaphor of writing a book. The appropriate metaphor is for any project that might ratchet up our level of impact. It is any project that may not be rewarded with the respect of the “professor next door,” but it is that which we think is critically important. In fact, it might be even be actively derided. That’s what happened to a number of metaphorical books. It happened to Carl Sagan’s award-winning Cosmos series on PBS, to Gary Becker’s famous Business Week columns, to Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics” to Paul Krugman’s New York Times columns, to Richard Posner’s Federal Judge appointment, and to Stephen Ambrose’s National World War II Museum.
The notion of an "unwritten book" can be a powerful and useful metaphor for us. For many of us, there is at least one metaphorical book that would take our ideas to a new level of influence. It might be starting a website and blog, presenting research in front of a House subcommittee in order to propose a law, making class modules for science teachers, writing a review article in a related field, starting a company, or starting a new class and turning the notes into a book. What’s interesting is that most of these “unwritten books” probably wouldn’t have to wait. They were something that could have been started much earlier if we would have removed our self-limiting barriers.
I remember another topic that I discussed with that eminent economics professor on the long ride back home. It was how quickly he said that his research years had passed.
He said that after he graduated with his PhD, he blinked and had tenure; he blinked again and he had an endowed chair; he blinked again and he was riding with me on what he called “his retirement bus.” The idea of starting a career of activism research when “the time is right” could disappear in a blink of an eye.
Time to start the next chapter.
There once was a legendary, larger-than-life professor. If Marvel’s 137th movie of this year is named UltraProf, it would be based on John Shank. He taught a dry subject (think Accounting), but his charisma and his orchestration of his class made each class session seem like 60-person David Mamet plays. Every class had passion, drama, and some surprising reveal at the end that people still talked about ten years later. Here’s a quote:
As a teacher John was at home at any level, and always brilliant. I could offer the testimonials of others, however, what brought his classroom performance home to me— and it was a performance in the truest sense of the word—was watching him at an Accounting Round Table at Pitt’s business school. He held 50 top financial officers in the palm of his hand while he presented his material. They were busy individuals with many things on their minds and schedules, but not a one left until John had answered their last question. I can assure you that their staying until the end was not out of courtesy (Bernberg 2008).
Although the opposite is true, some believed he was only about style. This is because he wore Brooks Brothers braces, walked with a MVP swagger, drove a Dartmouth green sports car, and he had a runway model wife who was like some VP of Finance somewhere. His office was professionally-decorated with French draperies, super-thick Dartmouth green carpeting, and a massive 18th century French desk which sat in the middle of the room so his desk chair could face the doorway. Even his two huge perfectly groomed dogs were effortlessly well-mannered. On Saturdays he’d come to work, and they’d sit on either side of his desk and face the door. They were like lions on either side of a throne, and he was like Odin . . . or John Wick. His dogs keep eternal vigilance. My dog wets on me and then licks my face.
This was 1992. Because he had about the highest MBA teacher ratings at Dartmouth's Tuck School and I had about the lowest ratings, he let me sit in on his classes so I could suck less . . . so I could learn better teaching strategies and classroom management skills. One Saturday during a Tuck alumni reunion, I stopped by his office and told him I had overheard some alumni who were still talking about what they had learned in a class they had taken with him 10 years earlier.
He looked up over the top of his half-glasses, and said, “That’s what they’re supposed to do. It means I’ve done my job.”
He said his goal isn’t to teach students to get a great first job (or to, analogously, get a high score on the GRE or MCAT), his goal is to teach them to succeed for wherever they will be in 10 or 20 years. Although he got outstanding teaching ratings, he brushed them off by saying that teacher ratings mainly measured the moment – they mainly measured the warm feelings a student had at the time. Ratings might capture style (which he was very good at), but they may not always measure long-term substance.
Last week, the school year ended. A lot of amazing teachers will take their course evaluation ratings and use them to improve their classes for next year. John’s view was that we need to also focus on the long-term impact of our courses.
I regret that I never had the presence of mind to ask him how he did it -- how he knew what long-term impact to aim at. Since he was on boards and did a lot of consulting with upper management, I suspect he taught his courses like he was teaching board members and upper management. That is, when he was teaching, he treated them like they were high level managers. That’s one way to do it.
A second way to try and teach for long-term impact might be to ask. After they graduate, it will be more apparent to them whether your course helped them live a better life (more useful, meaningful, successful, or whatever), and how your course might be improved. It’s easier to get this feedback than you might think. You’ve probably saved your class lists (somewhere) from 5 years ago. You might have their emails, or the alumni office will have both their emails and their snail mail addresses. You can simply ask them.
Ten or fifteen years after I left Dartmouth I was in Boston, and I rented a car to drive up to visit John. I wanted to thank him for being so generous, and I wanted to prove to myself that his office, desk, and dogs were as amazing as I remembered them. There was a different name on his door. I was too late.
I love the idea of trying to teach for a long-term impact. It’s like trying to create long-term memories. I sometimes think I can remember everything John said to me because he was always so intentional with every conversation. Just like he was with his classes.
At the next reunion, if his former student’s aren’t talking about what they learned 30 years ago, they’ll be talking about how hard he tried. That itself was a great lesson.
A close friend of mine believes successful PhD students have three things in common: They're smart, they work hard, and they have good judgment. The secret sauce here is "good judgment." Although smarts and hard work are important, most PhD students would have never been admitted if they weren't already smart, hard workers.
But having good judgment is more elusive. It includes things like knowing what's "interesting" and what isn't, knowing what's worth worrying about (and what isn't), knowing what's important to prioritize, knowing how to solve a people problem, knowing whether to persist on a project or to move on, and so on.
But advising a PhD student to "Have great judgment" is like advising a football team to "Score the most points." It doesn't tell them how. You can't say "Have great judgment" and then say "Next question," "QED," or drop the mic and walk out.
Maybe there's two types of judgment -- technical judgments and nontechnical judgments.
For graduate students, building technical judgment is about learning the whys of research. One way to build better technical judgment is to boldly ask lots of "Why?" questions of your mentor, advisor, or of an older student: "Why did you send it that journal? Why didn't you use a different method? Why did you ask the research question that way?" Most of us shied away from asking technical judgment questions because we didn't want to be irritating or look like we didn't belong. Most professors I know actually like to answer these questions, and they love to see an engaged student step out of a silent huddle.
Developing good nontechnical judgment is trickier. Yet this is the critical judgment you need to troubleshoot how you can be a better teacher, or whether to choose the risky dissertation you want to do versus the safe dissertation your advisor wants. It involves figuring out how to deal with your off-the-chart stress level or whether you should take a job at a teaching college or go into industry. Our tendency as a graduate student is to get feedback from peers in our same year. A more effective one may be to get it from recent graduates or from professors who have seen cases like these and know how they worked out. You can even get nontechnical advice from professors you know in other departments. The best nontechnical dissertation advice I got was from a Medical School professor from my church. It was straightforward, unbiased, kind, and based on lots of students he had known.
As professors, we can help to build better technical judgment by encouraging questions about our research judgment calls, or we can give it as color commentary or as context when we discuss a research project. But again, helping students with nontechnical judgments is trickier. One way to do this is in the third person. This can be by discussing a problem that "their friend" is having or by discussing a relatable case study.
Here's one approach to building nontechnical judgment. I used to teach a PhD course where we'd meet in my home for a casual last class session. The first half of the session would be a discussion about graduate student success and the last half would be dinner. Each student had been asked to anonymously write down a dilemma that "one of their friends" was facing that was being a roadblock to their success. We'd mix these 9-10 dilemmas up, and we'd relax in the living room with a glass of wine and discuss them one at a time. For each one, we'd talk about similar experiences, options, solutions, and so forth. By dinner time, we had a more balanced perspective and some suggested next steps for many of the dilemmas.
Over the years, it seemed that about 70% of these dilemmas were about the same 7-8 issues. These were like the issues mentioned above -- "risky vs. safe dissertation," "stress level," "leave academia," and so on.
Here's a second approach to building nontechnical judgment. Given how similar these dilemmas were from year to year, I wrote up 1-page PhD student case studies that involved slightly fictionalized people who were facing these common problems. These case studies were in the syllabus for the course, and we'd take the first or last part of each class to talk about that week's case study. The common dilemmas faced in your field may be different, but the enthusiasm your students would have in discussing them would probably be the same.
Some people might be born with great judgment, but for the rest of us, it's a lot of trial and error and a lot of asking bold questions. If you're a graduate student, you've got a lot more license than you might think to learn from trial, error, and bold questions. If you're a professor, there's a lot we can do to help them.
On a late afternoon about 20 years ago, I stepped into a slow elevator with my college’s most prolific, famous, and taciturn senior professor. After 10 seconds of silence, I asked, “Did you publish anything yet today?” He stared at me for about 4 seconds and said, “The day’s not over.” Cool . . . very Clint Eastwood-like.
As academics, we have great, productive days and we have bad days, but most lie in-between. If we could figure out what – other than an “Accept Without Revision” letter – leads to great days, we might be able to trigger more of them in our life.
Think of the most recent “great day” you had. What made it great, and how did it start?
For about 20 years, every time a colleague told me they had a great day, I’d ask “What made it great? How did it start out? About 50% of the time its greatness had to do with an external “good news” event like a paper getting accepted, a grant getting submitted, a great class, or a gracious letter from a former student. The other 50% of the time, the reason for “greatness” was more “internal.” They had a super productive writing day, they finished a paper, or they had a breakthrough idea.
External successes are easy to celebrate with these colleagues. Internal successes are more ephemeral, so it’s interesting to explore what was the trigger that made today a great day and what was it that sabotaged yesterday.
When people had great days, one reoccurring feature was that they started off great. There was no delay between when they got out of bed and when they Unleashed the Greatness. People said things like, “I had this idea last night, and I just got up and started writing,” or “I started on this revision right when I got up and had it half done by breakfast time.”
One of the most productive Grand Ole Dads in my field told me that he got up six days a week at 6:30 and wrote from 7:00 to 9:00 without interruption. Then he kissed his wife good-bye and drove into school. When I asked how long he had done that he said, “Forever.”
About a year ago, I started toying with this hypothesis: "Your first two hours set the tone for the whole day."
Think of your last mediocre day. Did it start out mediocre? That would also be consistent with this hypothesis.
We can’t trigger every day to be great, but maybe we have more control than we think. If we focus on making our first two hours great, it might set the tone for the rest of the day.
What we need to decide is what we can we do in those first two hours after waking that would trigger an amazing day and what would sabotage it and make it mediocre. For me, it seems paper writing, editing, exercise, or meditation are the good triggers, and it seems answering emails, reading the news, or surfing are the saboteurs.
Here’s to you having lots of amazing days. One’s where you can channel your best Clint Eastwood impression and say, “The day’s not over.”
It's been said that the most frequent last words of adventurous, partying males are probably:
1) “Hey, watch this,” or
2) “Here, hold my beer.”
If we heard either of these, our grizzled wise advice would probably be, “STOP, Don’t Do That!” But giving well-intended advice in less obvious situations is trickier, so we've grown more hesitant to do so. We’ve all been burned by giving advice and having someone either trigger their Eye of Death, or break a saloon chair and an unlabeled whiskey bottle over our head.
As a result, even as professors we can start drifting toward taking a more laissez-faire role toward advising students about their future. We might say “I will give them advice if they ask.” Yet even if they ask "What do I do?" we can be too carefully non-committal in giving them any advice (“Well, what do YOU want to do?”).
Last week, I had an interesting conversation with a person who said his son had been adrift in high school. It all turned in the right direction for him one day when a teacher who he casually played chess with said, “If you work hard, you could be a high-school chess champion.” He focused, and it happened. The Dad then said something similar had happened to him 50 years ago. He had been adrift in high school – good grades but adrift – when a teacher told him “If you work hard, you could be on the debate team.” He focused, and it happened.
These two teachers had given each of them a specific vision of what they could be: A chess champion and a debate champion. These mentors didn’t just compliment their talents by saying “You’re sharp,” or “You talks good.” They gave a specific direction that an adrift student could paddle toward. The decided to Be the One who pointed them toward an island.
With earnest students, it can be easy to say “Good job,” or “You’re creative,” or “You’re good at this class.” Those are compliments. Other types of compliments can give useful paddling directions. A student might be earnestly good at school but not see where to take their life other than in the general direction their parents, friends, or placement office talk about.
Suppose we took the risk that those two teachers took, and we told a student “You’d make a great ________,” or “Have you ever considered ____; I think you’d be really good at it.” They might feel a bit flattered, and a bit motivated to paddle in a direction they hadn’t thought of. Even if go in a totally different direction, if we motivated an earnest student in any hopeful direction, we accomplished more than if we would have given an easier default answer like, "Well, what do YOU want to do?"
Let’s circle back to last week’s conversation about the two teachers who stuck their necks out and make laid out specific visions to the guy and his son. Things worked out for both of them. Ten years later, the son had graduated from college, started his own business, and was coaching chess champion hopefuls on the side. Forty years later, the dad had retired as a Fortune 500 CEO to produce a movie. Partly because two mentors decided to Be the One who gave them direction.
I’m guessing that neither of their two teachers is still picking saloon chair splinters out of their head.
There's a reemerging teaching movement around this Be the One notion. Although it's sort of aimed at teachers of younger students, a surprising amount of it still applies to college students, and also applies to taking an extra effort to say the right words to graduate students at the right time. If you're teaching or TAing this semester, you can check out Ryan Sheehy's Twitter for a booster shot.
How to graduate, get a job, get tenure, solve problems, and make fewer mistakes.