24. No sweat

“Be happy in your work.”[1]

Janet Bickel likens academic career development to a long-distance hike[2], requiring sustained effort. In the tenure track, advancement from assistant professor to associate professor takes 5-9 years of strenuous effort at many institutions, and advancement from associate professor to full professor often requires 5-10 more. Problem is: as a species we’re not good at such sustained effort. Consider physical exercise and weight-loss diets. A minimum of 50% of us who begin these give up, with some sources reporting up to 90% attrition[3]. Why? We don’t find these efforts to be enjoyable, and they cause stress.

One approach to sustaining academic effort is using commitment devices (also here), forcing functions, and social pressure — all external. Although these can be effective, they are not always pleasant and can add to stress.

With respect to exercise, in her book No Sweat[4] Michelle Segar has an effective and ingeniously simple alternative solution to the problem of giving up: find a form of exercise that you enjoy performing.

According to Segar:

  • Unsustainable exercise regimes typically result from negative motivations (too unfit, too obese, too unattractive, too unhealthy, too embarrassed) for unpleasant exercise (an unwanted chore, a necessary evil, punishment, self-torture or, at the very least, taking time away from more important activities) with no immediate gratification (i.e., fitness takes time to develop). Sustained will power can overcome this combination, but is seldom sufficient.
  • A first step is to reframe the activity as a gift to one’s self, something one wants to do autonomously, a reward.
  • A next step is to find pleasurable forms of physical activity that are consistent with this reframing. Enjoyability trumps effort because activities that are not enjoyable are probably not sustainable. This is very much an individual preference. Some individuals enjoy intense work-outs, long runs, and sweating; some do not or lack the time for them. For the latter individuals, if the ‘medical model of exercise’[5] is set aside, opportunities for physical activity become obvious and activity more feasible.

[These two steps require resisting common societal and advertising messages that only those forms of exercise that are unpleasant or the ‘medical model’ are effective. To be sure, some forms of activity improve fitness and weight more than others, but if they are unsustainable because they are unpleasant, their overall impact will be small and temporary.]

Applying Segar’s approach to career development:

  • If one’s academic activity is unpleasant, it is probably not sustainable. Find forms that are pleasant or rewarding, and hence sustainable.
  • Within one’s job description is almost always an opportunity for choice or flexibility — of research project, of classroom approach to a topic, of how to contribute to one’s academic community, etc. Choose the options that are pleasurable or rewarding. They then become not ‘just your job’, but opportunities for enjoyment or reward. Gratification is both delayed (the eventual promotion) and, more importantly, immediate (you are doing something you enjoy).

[Presumably we entered academia because we enjoy the processes and challenges of creating knowledge, convincing peers, and educating or training others. Remember the enjoyment. Or, if it is no longer pleasant or rewarding, consider transition to a career that is.]

Admittedly, this prescription may be more feasible in some systems than others. At my institution we have a standard tenure track in which assistant professors who find their primary joy in teaching (and detest research) would be well advised to find another institution. For faculty who care for patients, however, we (and a growing number of academic health centers) have a second track that credits diverse contributions. In this track faculty can advance through any contribution that sufficiently enhances the distinction of the academic health center. We liken this to the Olympic or Paralympic Games, wherein individuals of diverse abilities and talents can excel. What matters for promotion is less the sport, and more that the competitor medals. In such a system, Michelle Segar’s prescription becomes: Figure out where your passion and institutional needs overlap, and then pursue your passion.

Such freedom of choice, however, can pose its own problems of decision paralysis. But one can’t have everything.

No sweat!

[Here is Bassam Shakashiri, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin and former Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation for Science and Engineering Education from 1984 to 1990, reminding us that what we do is and should be fun:



[1] http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0219243/quotes

[2] Bickel, J. 2008. Career development as a long-distance hike. J Gen Intern Med 24(1):118–21. DOI: 10.1007/s11606-008-0834-3. http://www.janetbickel.com/docs/09hike.pdf

[3] See, for example, https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/2013-100k-transformation-contest-press-release.html , https://www.creditdonkey.com/gym-membership-statistics.html , https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-90-you-quit-gym-early-2015-paul-elsass-msm , https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/00007256-199417010-00004 .

[4] Segar, M. 2015. No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. Amacom. http://a.co/5yEvp94

[5] e.g., http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/American-Heart-Association-Recommendations-for-Physical-Activity-in-Adults_UCM_307976_Article.jsp – .WZMxYq3GxPk; https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/prevention/policies_practices/physical_activity/guidelines.htm

[6] http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/xmaslect/liquid-oxygen.jpg

2 thoughts on “24. No sweat

  1. I encourage faculty members to ask three questions: Do I have enough autonomy to accomplish my goals? Am I finding opportunities to improve and gain mastery of knowledge and skills? Am I finding meaning and purpose in my work? If the answer is “no” to any or all of these questions, you should consider changing in your approach, changing your position, or changing your place of employment.


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