Don’t Always Play to Your Strengths

It’s no secret that most people who succeed in academia do so by focusing their attention on one thing. A couple years before I went up for tenure, the Chair of my department told me that I had probably published in too many different areas (ethics, logic, game theory, philosophy of science, etc.). If you need essays on these topics, you can find many topics on elite writings. The sad thing about his statement is that he was probably right. It’s harder to gain a reputation if your efforts are spread out across different disciplines, and so you quickly learn that specialization is the right strategy. Find something you’re good at and do it all the time.

I had several plans for leaving academia, but it took several years before anything finally worked. One of my early failures taught me that sometimes playing to your strengths and specializing can be fatal.

My plan was to escape from academia was pretty clever, if I do say so myself. I came across a job at an interdisciplinary center that was funded by a federal earmark. The job’s title was “Research Professor”. The position was being established because the center had a mandate to establish interdisciplinary research projects, and to write grant applications to support those projects. It was totally fascinating to me, and right up my alley.

At the time, I had tenure at the University of Missouri, but I really hated that job. So I took an unpaid leave to go to this center. My plan was that this government work would provide me with valuable skills and experience that I could leverage into another career, perhaps in consulting. If it didn’t work out, I could resume my previous job. It was a good plan, in part, because it carried minimal risk.

I really liked the people I was working with, and I thought they had a very good chance to really accomplish something unique and significant. My research went very well; I started bringing together some other people to start writing grant applications; and there was preliminary interest from the right people in government. But six months into my job, I was informed that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. And the blame was laid firmly at my own feet.

It took me quite a while to figure out what mistakes I had made. There were several, but the root cause of most of those mistakes was that I had played to my strengths. I was a good researcher, and I was especially adept at finding opportunities to conduct interdisciplinary research that had a technical component. My plan, when I started, was to begin a specific research agenda. At first, it would largely be done on my own because the center was still very young and unknown. There were no other research faculty there, and the university didn’t have much of a reputation for research. But I was confident that I could quickly — in under six months — establish a credible piece of research and start recruiting other faculty to contribute. I was very up-front about my plan, and the relevant administrators and faculty agreed that it was the right approach.

I had never been able to pursue an agenda that was so well-suited to my own interests and abilities. Unfortunately, that was exactly the problem. It was so tempting to immerse myself in that work that I neglected other work that was equally important.

In my case, there were several other aspects of the job that weren’t explicitly stated in the job description, but which any reasonable person would have been aware of immediately. One of those aspects was establishing and managing relationships with administrators and with other people outside the university — in this case, especially with people in government. But I’m not as good at that sort of work as I am with research. So, for the most part, I neglected that aspect of my job. Unfortunately for me, that turned out to be at least as important as the research component — probably more so. In short, because I’m pretty good at research, I concentrated my efforts there to such an extent that it made my research efforts irrelevant.

I made plenty of other mistakes, too. But they all fell into the same pattern. I did what I was good at, and I didn’t do what I wasn’t good at.

This sort of mistake could be made by anyone. But I think it’s especially likely to be made by academics. As academics, we’re rewarded for concentrating on what we’re good at, to the neglect of everything else. Our efforts are very narrowly focused, sometimes by formal requirements such as tenure criteria, but often by informal expectations. For example, if a faculty member were to publish non-technical trade books in addition to his or her “real” research, they’d likely be seen as being “not a serious scholar”. Doing outreach, or giving too many talks to non-specialist audiences typically has the same effect. Many academics strategize endlessly about how to minimize the time they have to spend on anything other than their core work; I was certainly no exception to this rule. Outside interests are frowned-upon, especially if you’re not already well-established in your field.

And this pressure to concentrate on one thing you’re good at continues for literally decades of one’s career, from graduate school at least through tenure, and typically much longer. This is something that makes the transition to the private sector so challenging. We have to break ourselves of this pattern, and it’s very difficult to do so. We have to become comfortable doing things that are outside our wheelhouse, because very few organizations are able to tolerate someone whose contributions are too narrowly focused. This means being willing and able to learn new skills, even ones that are not any part of your job description. It means being comfortable making mistakes and asking for help from people. And especially it requires working well in a collaborative environment, despite the fact that many academics are routinely penalized for doing too much collaboration (especially pre-tenure).

In my opinion, the need to break out of one’s comfort zone and become willing to perform necessary tasks that don’t play to one’s strengths is a major challenge for academics who want to move into the private sector. But in the right environment — that is, one in which you’re actually rewarded for doing what needs to be done — those habits can be broken.

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