Advice & News

December 29, 2021

Is ‘Heroic Individualism’ Stunting Your Career Growth?


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Those who work or aspire to work in the academy are an ambitious bunch. You’d have to be a go-getter to embrace the challenges colleges and universities have faced since the onset of the pandemic. But higher education professionals don’t often attribute their individual reach to being part of a collective. Just as a tree can grow outside of a forest, you can be uprooted to a new job and you can learn to branch out your skills to withstand the winds of change.

This personal aspiration is not just a side effect of the shift toward online classes and remote work. Higher education is structured around specialization and autonomy despite its corporate hierarchy and the physical proximity of working around a campus quad. Get your name published in enough journals, get enough funding for your program, get enough attention from your students, get enough respect from colleagues, get enough time and energy to do it all over again the next semester or academic year. It’s personal and it never seems like you can “get” enough. But where do you go to get more?

Self-help psychology and the hustle culture will tell you everything you need to succeed comes from within. You just have to dig deeper or optimize your life. No wonder many higher education professionals experience burnout.

Author and human performance coach Brad Stulberg recently coined a term that fits perfectly for the higher education zeitgeist: “heroic individualism.” It’s the “ongoing game of one-upsmanship, against both yourself and others, paired with the limiting belief that measurable achievement is the only arbiter of success,” Stulberg wrote. “(Y)ou chronically feel like you never quite reach the finish line that is lasting fulfillment.”

The symptoms are restlessness, a feeling of frenetic energy, and exhaustion. The antidote is in the title of Stulberg’s latest book, “The Practice of Groundedness.”

"Groundedness is unwavering internal strength and self-confidence that sustains you through ups and downs,” Stulberg wrote. “It is a deep reservoir of integrity and fortitude, of wholeness, out of which lasting performance, well-being, and fulfillment emerge.”

Stulberg doesn’t deny intrinsic motivation and the belief that productivity, optimization, and growth come from within, but rather he recommends practicing groundedness that “situates and stabilizes these qualities, so that your striving and ambition become less frenetic and more focused, sustainable, and fulfilling.”

This is all well and good until your boss starts emailing you incessantly or there’s a line of students waiting outside your door. But that’s where a groundedness practice sustains you. No matter what’s tugging on your branches, you remain rooted and keep growing.

Stulberg outlines six principles of groundedness to follow that I will explain for higher education professionals who might be plagued by heroic individualism or considering a job change.

1. “Accept where you are to get you where you want to go.” Higher education careers seem very linear and there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Don’t get caught up in thinking “I should have this” or “I should be there by now” and accept and proceed with what you have. Stulberg said to replace your negative self-talk with the following affirmation: “This is what is happening right now. I'm doing the best I can.” 

2. “Be present so you can own your attention and energy.” Set firm boundaries on your time and be intentional about the professional activities you choose instead of reacting to a to-do list or inbox. As a careerist, you might want to optimize everything and constantly add things, especially to your resume or CV, for the sake of doing more. Instead, as Stulberg wrote, we should “be focused on being fully present for the pursuits and people that matter most to us.”

3. “Be patient and you’ll get there faster.” It’s not uncommon for instructional faculty and staff to have to wait until their late 30s to land their first full-time job. On a more micro level, patience is required to work in higher education, to follow the longer hiring cycles and overall glacial pace in which work is approved and shipped. Still, the heroic individual in many of us says that we can compensate for bureaucratic inefficiencies if we just work harder and faster. But then we overextend ourselves by trying to do 20 percent more when we should actually be doing 20 percent less. The adage of “stopping one rep short” comes from athletic coaching, where you save yourself from injury or fatigue by waiting for the next session to exercise with correct form, more energy, and greater speed.

4. “Embrace vulnerability to develop genuine strength and confidence.” Higher education professionals are susceptible to impostor syndrome, trying to impress people by aligning oneself with the prestige and reputation of an organization, and this idea that you have to “fake it ’til you make it.” But according to Stulberg, you should instead live a life of congruence between your workplace self, your online self, and your actual self, so that you know and trust your true self. Sure, there are times you have to be performative, like a job interview, but groundedness comes from finding a balance between what sociologist Erving Goffman called your “front-stage self” and your “back-stage self.”

5. “Build deep community.” Remove the individual from “heroic individualism” and enmesh yourself in an inherent benefit of working in higher education: being part of a tightly knit community. This gets back to the tree/forest metaphor, for which Stulberg notes that massive redwoods have roots that grow outward around the roots of their neighbors. Community, or relatedness, is one of three basic human needs, according to self-determination theory. Heroic individualists pursue autonomy and competence, but they neglect their sense of belonging and connection which are sustaining and lead to career fulfillment.

6. “Move your body to ground your mind.” This might seem like a throw-in principle from an author who works with athletes in his coaching practice. But a simple movement routine can make you more grounded and renew your mind. It doesn’t take much to reverse the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle: according to studies, a two-minute walk every hour or a 10-minute walk three times a day can be effective. This can easily be achieved on a college campus and you might already be doing this if you have to park far away from your building.

Higher education professionals aren’t going to overcome their heroic individualism in one fell swoop and suddenly rid themselves of restlessness, anxiety, and burnout. “Groundedness is most effective and rewarding when it is embarked on an ongoing practice,” Stulberg wrote. “You'll have periods of strong motivation when everything is clicking. And you’ll have periods when you relapse into old ways of being and doing.”

But always trying to play the hero will lead you closer to becoming a zero -- with zero energy, zero confidence, zero growth -- if you don’t keep yourself grounded.

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