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The Happy Academic

Becoming an academic storm-chaser

How to embrace fear and courage in your work.


Storm chasers stare into the eye of the most ferocious storms – then run, not away, but towards the ire. Their choice is supremely counter-intuitive to the very human instinct to seek comfort: to run away or for cover when faced with the truly frightening. But chasers know the risks are real and act despite them.

In academia, our fears can also be intense – and the pull of comfort is endlessly alluring given the intensity and complexity of our work and workplaces. Choices between comfort and fear come in many forms: Do we mix up our student assessment with innovation or stay safe in the end-of-term proctored final exam? Do we embrace the most challenging job offer or lofty research aspiration which intimidates us to the core, or take what seems like the easier road in the moment?

Our most personal fears often arise from the interpersonal. It’s tough to stand up to those who bully and it’s tempting to disengage from workplaces rather than work together to improve them. Too many stay miserable yet certain in the university that they know yet resent, rejecting the opportunity to embrace the perilous uncertainty of moving to a new workplace or sector.

Or perhaps what is most fearful to us is that which is least visible to us: challenges to our deep and long-held biases, prejudices, and identities. Can we park our ego to truly listen and be open to others who hold different values to ours? Can we recognize that our perennial over-criticism of others is actually about our own insecurity? Can we acknowledge that our actions can perpetuate racial or gender inequalities and marginalize or hurt others? In academia, even not being or appearing perfect can be the most frightening of places.

Comfort or courage?

Reflecting on choices between comfort and fear, remember: our reactions to fear matter far more than fear itself.  Yet reacting well to fear is challenging because fear and the vulnerability that comes with it feels viscerally horrible. As Brené Brown reminds us, we can have comfort or we can have courage, but we cannot have both.

How can we act with courage in our own fearful situations? We can learn a lot from storm chasers. Researcher Paul Zunkel found that chasers in the United States run towards storms not because of their overpowering adrenaline or by dismissing their fear. The chasers feel fear intensely. But it is their responses to this fear, driven by their desire to learn, to draw on their experience and stay curious, that defines their conduct. In their actions, storm chasers show us: courage is not the absence of fear but is a response to fear.

It would be tempting but mistaken to think we should get aggressive or self-protective to overcome fears in academia. Like storm chasers, to face your storm, feel the fear. But prepare yourself best to go into the storm by focusing on learning and staying curious. Consciously reflect on how acts of courage look different to acts of comfort in your conduct. Remember, you cannot have both. To navigate safely, as with the chasers, draw on both empirical and self-knowledge to help guide you. Academia, as we have often written, can benefit from a vast panoply of knowledge from different fields to overcome work challenges. Harness your past experience and transferable skills. Accept that which is uncertain and work around it deliberatively. Even if you have faced similar fearful situations before, reflect and prepare as much as you can, so you can feel confident in the face of all eventualities.

How do you choose comfort over courage in your work? What frightening aspects of your academic work do you know, deep down, you need to run towards? Remember: feeling fear tells you that you’re getting closer to where you should go. And know too—that which scares you can’t just be about others, that in itself is a red flag. Embrace and face those aspects of yourself that also bring you fear. Courage comes out of this fear not despite it, and, taking lessons from storm chasers, there’s lots we can do to navigate our storms with courage and confidence.

We get one life. One career. And they are short. A glimpse and a glimmer in the history of time. If you were to truly embrace your internal academic storm chaser, what would you do courageously today? Go now.

Alexander Clark & Bailey Sousa
Alex is president of Athabasca University. Bailey is associate vice-president of planning, quality and assessment at Athabasca University. They are both founders of The Effective, Successful, Happy Academic, and the authors of "How to Be a Happy Academic" (Sage: London, 2018), they share a passion for effectiveness and aspiration in academic work.
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