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.
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!