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The Happy Academic

Happy New Year and cheers to new learning!

As you contemplate 2022, move your learning zone from that which is easy to what is hard: learning about yourself.


What’s your main priority for learning in 2022? Not safe learning – like getting to grips with that new HR system or better at writing. No, the deep learning about yourself that must involve you getting personal, being vulnerable, and delving deep into your own discomfort and doubt. This self-learning entails what we call “self work:” learning about the very last things about yourself you want to acknowledge. Those parts of you that bring the most shame, most defensiveness, or, most likely, the most avoidance.

Can you truly bring this difficult self-learning avowedly into your learning zone? Be and stay courageous enough to be vulnerable? This will entail getting and staying curious about what you’re not comprehending – what you can’t and don’t want to recognize or realize about yourself. Learning makes the self better, but how can we get better at self-learning?

True self-learning and the curiosity this involves is doubly difficult because of language and culture. In academia, the word “learning” spans vast chasms. From how humans begin walking to what we credentialize in working. From mastering mundane daily tools to glimpsing the most elusive of transcending self-knowledge.

“Curiosity,” similarly, conjures up gentle thoughts of meanderings into warm places of fuzzy delight: why do I love my favourite Michelin-starred restaurant so much?! Yet, the truly curious person is far less intrigued than scared to death. What are other people holding back from telling you? What do they dread about their interactions with you that you remain entirely oblivious too? If you are telling yourself you’re gifted at what you do, why are you so ineffective in changing minds and behaviours about the things that matter to you? Getting curious about what you really need to learn about yourself is the hardest and sometimes the cruelest learning we can ever face.

Dominant working cultures repel academics from self-learning. Not unnaturally, most of us flinch, avoid, or otherwise run a mile at the prospect of facing down learning about those aspects of ourselves we most dread. People who are otherwise extremely smart and well qualified are channelled into career-long periods of blissful self-oblivion and endless self-justification: the problem being everyone else and everything else bar me.

The costs of academia’s avoidance of difficult self-learning are grave and incalculable, deep and broad. It contributes to academic workplaces riven with preventable bitter interpersonal schisms, avoidance of decisions, and many bad decisions. It leads to bullying, incivility and damaging careerism. It fuels numbing personal addictions – from doing too much work to consuming too much alcohol, from pulling your hair out in anger to pulling status or rank in your conduct. All lie far less in personal weakness than in the true enemy of self-learning: the ego.

We challenge ourselves and you to pinpoint the self-learning you choose to bring into your learning zone in 2022. Think, reflect, then reflect more on what you most need to learn about and for yourself – and when you’re scared enough: you’re beginning to get there. Write down what you need to learn.

Then set a goal and make a plan. The journey will entail deliberative reading and reflecting. Dialogue with yourself and others. Utilize coaching and mentoring too. Vulnerability will not be a difficult consequence but an ongoing necessity.

 To help you on your way, we recommend anticipating your very human responses to vulnerability. To counter defensiveness and biases, find a critical friend who will always stand with you to tell you truths about you that you don’t want to face or won’t or can’t see. Seek and attain an “accountability partner” or academic coach who can be your confidant, challenger, and solace to keep you to your self-learning goals and plan. Remember: by definition, this cannot be a safe, secure, or factual journey: getting and staying vulnerable quells emotional suppression, displacement, or intellectualization. Remember vulnerability is as much about curiosity of vague feelings of being lost or confused, as interrogating strong emotions like anger or frustration.

And if all this self-learning sounds like too much trouble, hard work, or unproductive, we challenge you that such perspectives are your very problem. This will be most valuable learning you will prioritize all year – and the biggest gift you could provide for 2022 to your colleagues, your students, your discipline, and, most of all, yourself. Nothing is more relevant to your work or yourself. To echo John F. Kennedy’s famous words on a momentous past quest: do this not because it is easy, but precisely because it is hard.

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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