All Wheat and No Chaff

How the Good-Student Mindset Destroys Us, and What to Do Instead

Image credit: Yann Cœuru
  • Assume that doing so is the path to success
  • Remain hypervigilant about the quality of our work even in the face of good feedback
  • We assume that doing everything well is the path to success, but now our tasks and targets aren’t selected to enable us to progress to our goals; instead, they are assigned by desperate department heads based on budget holes, staffing gaps, and the ever-escalating demands of admin.
  • We remain hypervigilant about the quality of our work despite feedback, but now our anxiety is raised exponentially by the untenable size of our workloads. We might reasonably have expected to feel less anxious beause we’d actually landed a job. Nope. Instead we’ve augmented our longstanding worry that nothing we do is good enough with a new conviction that nothing we do is ever done enough. It’s not just that our email to our HoD was poorly worded; it’s that there are 27 more emails we haven’t even opened yet.

The wall of despair

After some years of this, most of us hit what I call the wall of despair, which is the point at which we just can’t keep doing it anymore. The wall can manifest in many forms, from health problems to the destruction of our relationships to panic attacks to clinical depression. When we hit the wall, we still believe not doing everything well means failing, but we now see no option left but to give up anyway. It is frequently a horrible moment, because from within the good-student mindset, it can feel like giving up on ourselves.

The triage mindset

I call the alternative to the good-student mindset the triage mindset. The first step in developing this mindset is to challenge each of the key beliefs of the good-student approach.

  • Rather than assuming that doing everything well is the path to success: recognise that your goals and the goals of people assigning you work are not correlated and may even be opposed. This means you have to define your own goal in every situation and decide what it takes to meet it.
  • Rather than being hypervigilant about the quality of your work however good the feedback you get: develop strategies to deal with work anxiety that do not involve trying to resolve it through more or better output. I’ve had luck with therapy, meds, coaching, and spinning classes. The key thing is to accept that your anxiety may take the form of thoughts about work, but it cannot be reduced through work.
  1. Define what you think you need to do to meet this goal. Again, specifics!
  2. Revisit #2 in relation to #1 and re-define #2 if it is off target.
  3. Remind yourself that reverting to the good-student approach will not mitigate your anxiety and manage it otherwise.
  • Assume that meeting those standards on every possible front will constitute the class being a success
  • Be hypervigilant about the quality thereof.
  • Reading list: streamlined to prioritize the clarity of its argument. Ease for me and value for them is more important than coverage outside of equity issues.
  • Seminar: create two moments of synthetic thinking, where students think across a conceptual gap to arrive somewhere new to them, per seminar.
  • Seminar prep: contain prep by doing it on the day of class. Identify two passages to close read and two synthetic questions. Everything else is overkill. Read material once and take good notes; in following years revisit the notes but not the material. By the time I need to re-read, it’s probably time to change the module.
  • Office hours, emails, etc.: treat students as important through the quality of attention I give, not the quantity. Make sure students know why I am making the pedagogical choices I am, especially when they might be unpopular or counterintuitive.

Triage your job

You can do the same thing for your position as a whole, and I recommend you do. I would start there, actually.

  1. Define how you will get there: Figure out what is actually required for the goals you have and downgrade everything else. Take your personal standards for being a good colleague and teacher into account. Figure out who is good at reading the department and the institution and ask them what they think matters for your specific goal. Let the balls you don’t absolutely need to catch whizz past your head. If your Head of Department’s good opinion is important to where you’re going, consider what they actually value rather than assuming they notice and care about everything you do.
  2. Revisit the relationship between #2 and #1. Your goals and the institution itself will change. The line between wheat and chaff isn’t absolute or permanent; it is relative to you, your work environment, your ambitions, and your ethics and politics.
  3. Resist trying to manage your anxiety by returning to the good-student mindset. This one is the biggest challenge, but it lessens over time, when you see in practice that you are actually more secure when you concentrate your energy on getting the things that matter to you most. Remember that the institution always benefits from you thinking that you should keep acting like a good student, so that you do everything asked of you to the highest standards. Your mentors may even tell you this. Don’t believe it.

Final note

There’s one more aspect to giving up the good-student mindset that I haven’t mentioned until now, which I think is an issue for a lot of us. It involves allowing our relationship to the institution to be truly adversarial rather than just aggrieved.

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