In It To Win It

Several months ago I sat in a virtual meeting with several other researchers of color. We talked about our different potential career paths and where we envisioned ourselves in the future. At one point, a woman mentioned that she wanted a faculty position because she enjoys research. She paused for a moment, and then she said “… and because I like to win.”

I admit I first felt a bit judgmental when she said that. That’s so competitive and capitalist, I thought to myself at the time. If I had been in a Natalie Tran YouTube video, I might have asked, “so do you like to stomp on your enemies and laugh with glee as you out-publish and out-grant them, catapulting them into a doom spiral surrounded by their own incompetence?” (Obviously I’m joking because this person is generally really nice.)

Though the comment took me aback when she said it, upon reflection, I actually find it kind of refreshing. I feel this way because I have met people in academia – and I am sure this exists outside of academia in other industries too – who make comments about how they care about the work because it promotes social justice, and then these same people will behave in interpersonally and intrapersonally toxic ways either inside the workplace, outside the workplace, or both. So when this person openly shared that part of her desire for an academic position includes how she enjoys winning, at least she owned that instead of masking it behind false sincerity related to some other cause.

Over the years I have grown more comfortable admitting to myself that I enjoy research. I like collaborating with people on projects and thinking critically about topics related to mental health and social justice. I think I’m not as drawn to the elitism and notoriety of academia because of what it felt like growing up with my mother. She loved prestige and presenting a strong external front to people outside of our family, even though she treated all of us within her immediate family like garbage. Thus, ever since my childhood, I learned to question if people mean what they say, and I grew comfortable rejecting outward appearances and markers of prestige – because my family looked smart and well-off and that did not protect me from my mother’s abuse.

Some of my negative reaction to this woman’s comment may also stem from the harm I have experienced by people who value winning. Certain professors have hurt me, and I also think about the guy I know who told me he uses prizes and awards as self-validation and then proceeded to string me along for months and months without offering any basic communication or transparency. The thought of working in an environment with anyone like that makes my body freeze and tense up, out of fear for my own safety.

One part of healing from trauma, though, involves recognizing that even if dangerous people exist, safe people exist too. I have met people in academia and research fields who practice compassion, healthy communication, and self-regulation. These folks tend to enjoy the learning and/or mentoring components of their jobs more than the prestige, at least from what I perceive. When I get triggered by some event or statement in my work, I try to keep these more caring and self-aware folks in mind, to ground myself and remind myself of how I want to behave too.

The other day I talked with a good friend about my current research concerns. Namely, because I am in the process of applying to faculty jobs, the peer-reviewed papers I produce now may not “count” much – they’d come out too late to count toward the CV I submit for the faculty jobs, and they’d come out too early to count toward tenure if I do secure one of these jobs. My friend reminded me about why I value research in the first place, how I enjoy collaborating folks and want to wield research as a tool for social justice, and I felt better. Though, my initial concerns reminded me that I too am susceptible to the pressure to win and produce within academia and capitalism broadly. It reinforced for me the importance of practicing curiosity about why certain people may place their self-worth into winning, of trying to understand what may make people prioritize achievement above all else, instead of only judging them for it.

Omg look at this amazing strawberry lemonade punch I got with mango popping boba. So delicious and so much better than having a mediocre man in my mouth. Anyway, I’m wholesome and innocent even though I’ve made that joke probably 10,000 times on this blog by now.

What is your relationship with winning and competition? General reactions to this post? Why is mango popping boba the best topping ever? I hope folks are doing well and until next post!



Filed under Personal

5 responses to “In It To Win It

  1. That friend you talked to talked sense and I’m glad they were there for you. I also eschew show and prestige, because I could never have done well enough so I basically gave up. I mean, I have a nice house, a husband and a job I enjoy, and I like being listed in acknowlegements in books, but I don’t care for that stuff and am uncomfortable around folks who do. So yes, I hear you! But you can be an academic for those other reasons and I too have known some good ones who are. And publications and collaborations can lead to new ones, too, that might be better timed for you.

    • Yes I’m grateful for that friend too! I appreciate your honesty and perspective about not caring for prestige and honoring what you do have and what you bring to the table. I think you role model super well living a balanced life, like having multiple relationships and interests that fill your time, and I know that many academics struggle to achieve that balance or anything resembling it. I hope you are doing well. (:

  2. That was quite common and encouraged in my former corporate life. You had to compete for the limited raises, promotions and awards. If I wanted to promote someone, that person would have to be ranked across the entire business unit with his/her peers. Who was visible? Did their responsibilities increased? What did they achieve?

    For those on commission or some type of incentive plan, we had targets to meet and your job performance also depended on it.

    So it does play prominently into one’s work identity. And sometimes it is a detreminent to one’s innocence and wholesomeness. I hope you don’t have to work in an environment like that unless you like that type of climate.

    • Oooooh thanks for sharing these details about your former corporate life! Big yikes. Yeah I think with the perspective you share it can help increase empathy for why some people do value themselves based on work and the ability to win, if they’ve been in situations where they’ve been forced to care about those things for example. I appreciate having resources to do the work I want to do though I’m not into competition so, I will try to pass on those environments!

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