I once heard of a vice-chancellor who said each of his staff seemed to have a chip on their shoulder. He said the staff were uncomfortable because they didn’t work at Oxford or Cambridge, and felt a little inferior. After thinking about this situation, he decided he would do everything in his power – to keep the chips there! It was core to motivation – academics tried harder and harder to show they were just as good as those in the more established universities.

Perverse as this sounds, feelings of inadequacy, now often called imposter syndrome, or old fashioned desires to prove oneself, or to just belong, are powerful motivators that can provide meaning for many people. While some individuals worry that only they have these deep feelings of inadequacy, of forever having to try harder to just keep up with expectations, it seems quite likely that actually, many if not most people, even those who are succeeding, probably feel the same way. In fact, some people are successful, primarily because they feel unsuccessful, and are thus internally driven to try harder and harder and harder. Paradoxically, it’s a fair bet that successful people have more feelings of inadequacy than others.

This drive, this purpose, this – dare I say it – ambition, is a great thing provided it pushes people to strive to be better rather than pushing them to snipe and try to drag others down. I guess either can happen but, in general, the trend towards – positivity – (sometimes to excess) in most places I have worked, means that, if sniping occurs, it doesn’t reach my ears very often.

During my career I have observed how drive and this type of naked ambition is regarded differently in different countries. In Australia it is hidden, since Australians don’t like tall poppies, who big note their achievements or even their prospects. Australian academics work with hard determination, but they don’t like to show it. Ambition, that combination of confidence and energy is often hidden.

In the US, drive, ambition and success are celebrated. There is a remarkable commitment to productivity – I recall a colleague referring to someone who had won the Nobel prize five years earlier, and saying – sure but what have they done since? He needs to deliver today! The pressure is always on in some of the top US labs!

In the UK on the other hand I remember meeting a very few disarmingly smart and witty people who always passed the port the right way, and had a reputation for exceptional cleverness, but didn’t always produce work in the quantities that were expected. This had some advantages because it put quality above quantity but gradually it may be changing. These days academic bean counters (and I’m one sometimes) relentlessly weigh everyone daily to reassure themselves about productivity.

Having a chip on your shoulder is not only good for motivating you, and pushing you to take risks, and put in the hard yards, it also prevents people from becoming smug, arrogant or complacent.

It is not often said, but I recall the word “arrogant” being used a lot when I was younger (perhaps it was used about me I guess!). These days it seems much rarer. It is a great sin to be arrogant and a terrible thing to be perceived as arrogant – unless of course you have the withering charm of Paul Keating, in which case you can get away with it. Churchill also seemed to carry arrogance well.

I am not sure why (or even if) arrogance has declined but I think it has. Perhaps the constant scrutiny by bean counters and by global social media, means that it is just so much harder to pass oneself off as a perfect fish in a small pond, or to strut around like a smug local hero. We all know that somewhere someone is outperforming us, and these days, with Google Scholar and such, it is pretty easy for anyone to find out who!

I think this ubiquitous scrutiny undermines everyone, it converts the arrogant into the humble and can drive the already humble to insecurity. Provided that insecurity is only mild and just pushes people to strive harder – imbuing purpose and allowing people to derive satisfaction from their efforts – then, that’s OK. If not, it can be the beginning of a mental health pandemic.

My kids tell me that I should not blame social media and the internet for everything, or bang on about scrutiny, universal approval ratings and social media. Rather I should learn to live in the new world and master the data that threatens to put a chip on each of our shoulders. Of course, my kids are right and I am learning to love the chip.

Prof. Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic



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