Those of us who work in higher education are very familiar with expectations. We set expectations for our employees, our students, the outcomes of events and initiatives, and committees. Often we’re able to develop the expectations ourselves, while other times expectations are given to us by a superior or a colleague. This works well in a professional context, but have you ever taken a moment to determine what your personal expectations are and who is setting them for you?
Over the last two years, I’ve had some amazing professional development experiences. I’ve started the path toward a Ph.D., presented at South by Southwest, collaborated with fantastic colleagues, accepted speaking, writing, and training opportunities, and landed a director-level position at a small campus doing amazing things. Over the last few months, however, I’ve been reflecting on why I’m doing all these things, and who I’m doing them for.
I believe that there are both benefits and drawbacks of being highly connected within the higher education community. The benefits are likely obvious, and have been documented over and over. The drawbacks, on the other hand, are less apparent.
When you’re constantly connected to the movers and shakers, it’s hard to resist the temptation to “keep up with the Joneses.” That little voice inside you might say: “He just landed an amazing speaking engagement, and she just published a book. I’m just as knowledgeable as these folks. I need to put the pedal to the metal and get myself out there!”
Once you manage to actually get yourself out there (through a blog, speaking gigs, published writing, or just being awesome), well-intentioned colleagues (and even strangers) will begin sending opportunities your way. Great opportunities, maybe even lucrative opportunities. And it becomes hard to say no. Accordingly, your stress level begins to rise. That little voice inside you might say: “Busy people are more productive! Just schedule everything, give yourself deadlines, and you’ll be fine. This is what successful people do!”
This is where I found myself this summer. I must confess – I don’t even think I took on that much. I like to be busy. I know people that have a lot more on their plate. But, I realized I was straying from my own personal expectations, which never included the trifecta of working a full-time job, pursuing a Ph.D., and piling additional consulting/free-lance work on top of it all. If I think back to where I was two or three years ago, I had one clear, professional expectation: get a Ph.D., preferably by the time I’m 30.
I’ve read that last sentence over and over. That one, simple expectation I had for myself is quite lofty. Considering I’ve been working full-time since I finished undergrad, it’s a very, very aggressive goal. And I would have been on track to make it, had I not let everyone else’s expectations get in the way. My 30th birthday is Saturday, and my advisor and I both agree that I could be finished with my proposal and conducting research by now. Instead, I have messy attempts at two chapters, a survey in dire need of revising, and the prospect of a very ambitious writing schedule to get back on track with my original goal. I can still become Dr. Gross while I’m 30. It might not make it before I turn 31, but I’m going to try.
That means I won’t be accepting new speaking engagements, writing more articles, or presenting at more conferences. Once I’ve fulfilled all of my current commitments, I’ll be on professional hiatus until I can get my business cards reprinted with those three beautiful letters after my name.
This is a very rational plan. But I can’t stop from thinking that disappearing from the “public eye” in higher education means that I’ll be less successful—using a definition of success I’ve allowed others to create for me. It’s time for me to set my own expectations.
For me, success probably looks a little something like this: working in a higher education environment, conducting research to further our understanding of the way students communicate and use technology; having enough time to dedicate to my thriving garden and creating delicious recipes from the produce I harvest; spending time with my partner; traveling the world; cheering on the Milwaukee Brewers; and finally finding time to give back to my community. I don’t want to become a national thought leader—I’d be perfectly happy as an involved intellectual.
Your vision of success might look like everything I’m backing away from. It might include running a division of student affairs, or dedicating your career to developing emerging leaders. What matters is that you create the definition yourself and set your own expectations.
Our highly-connected community has become hyper-connected with the advent of social media. If you take the time to connect, you are privy to what everyone is doing all the time. I fear that despite all the good that can come from this, it can also serve to inflate our sense of what a “good” professional does and allow us to drift away from our realistic expectations of ourselves. Today, consider taking time to reflect on what your professional life looks like. Are you pursuing your passions? Are you challenging yourself? Are you doing what you always thought you’d like to do? What are your expectations going forward?
Write that down. Then, jump back on Twitter and Facebook, congratulate everyone on all the great stuff they’re doing, and stay focused on what truly matters to you. I’ll be cheering you on.
Liz Gross is the director of university marketing and communication at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha and a doctoral student at Cardinal Stritch University. Follow her on Twitter: @lizgross144