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You’re Working too Hard to Make an Impact

Professorial Exodus

Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which I did for many years after college, I learned to recognize a curious ritual. Come June, the academic offices of Harvard and MIT would clear out as a significant fraction of these schools’ professors decamped to New Hampshire, Maine, and, for the more remuneratively famous among them, Martha’s Vineyard.

Some professors I knew would fall off the radar completely, while others would shift to three day a week schedules. But come summer time, you couldn’t take it for granted that a professor would be on campus.

Interestingly, the biggest predictor of a professor leaving was status: the more important a person’s work, the more comfortable they were taking time off. Here’s my hypothesis: once they built confidence in their understanding of value — how to identify what really matters and what it really takes to produce it — they gained the confidence required to push everything else aside.

Are You Busy or Valuable?

When the weather turns nice, as it has been recently down here in DC, I remember this Cambridge ritual. It reminds me of an important point: creating value is unrelated to busyness. When you find yourself — as I sometimes do — working long hours, day after day, reacting and e-mailing and hatching schemes, it’s useful to remember that you’re working more than some of the world’s most respected and impactful thinkers.

The hard part, of course, is that it’s easier to be busy than it is to be valuable — but this shouldn’t stop us from every once and a while taking advantage of a nice day to shut things down and spend a few hours trying to figure out the difference.

(Photo by Christopher Wisker)

12 thoughts on “You’re Working too Hard to Make an Impact”

  1. A technical note: My comment spam plug-in seems to have recently bonked out and prevented people from leaving comments (which is why there are no other comments on thi spost). Things should be working now. In the meantime, if you have a particular comment spam plug in to recommend (other than Askimet, which I also use), e-mail my interesting address or leave a comment here.

  2. Great post Cal-

    Many times when people are perpetually over working, they’re doing so because they’re avoiding what’s most important or because they fear failure and want to have the long hours to prove that it’s not their fault if something doesn’t work out.

    However, if you face the most important tasks and feel confident in your ability to produce, you’re able to let go and relax without fear.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  3. My gosh! And all this time spent being busy I thought I was making myself valuable so as to earn the freedom to shut down and enjoy the fine days.

  4. Hi there! This is a great post and goes to the heart of the matter. I particularly like your phrase, “The hard part, of course, is that it’s easier to be busy than it is to be valuable.” That’s so true. I’m a 2nd year PhD student trying to find that balance of being productive and effective vs. being busy with stuff that “comes up”. Thanks for sharing.

  5. An interesting question is how do the professors know if they’re perceived as valuable enough to take the time off without repercussions? Assuming that the professors are dedicated to their craft and know that taking time off will help in their projects by recharging their batteries, rather than waste time, how do they know they aren’t going to be passed up for promotion, denied tenure, or given crummy assignments based on their extended leave?

  6. The other catch is that these people put in many hours (on the order of years) of being busy in order to eventually have the ability to take time off. Before these professor obtained tenure, I’m confident, you’d be hard-pressed to find them taking time off.

  7. Great post, and I think you’re exactly right. I’ve been spinning my wheels pretty hard lately, and sometimes could stand to remember to work smarter, not harder…and don’t be afraid to give my brain a break. Thanks!!!

  8. Thank you for sharing this great insights. I have to agree about what said that it’s easier to be busy than it is to be valuable . In my mind, a major factor to experiencing the BIG things in life that we all want—meaningful relationships, work we are passionate about, making a significant contribution to the world—is getting the LITTLE things right day in and day out. Achieving Success is Really Not That Big of a Deal!

  9. Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this post. I doubt your reasoning on the specific case. I think it’s far more likely that they leave because they feel secure enough to leave, because their priorities shiftly slightly with higher status or a different stage in the lives, and/or because they have become so familiar with the job (teaching the same classes, managing grad students, working with the administration) that they have less overhead. Further, I think this would predict a general increase in quality of scholarship over a career. While you can certainly find luminaries with this record, if you were to look at the top 1% of 35 year old professors and their contributions over the next thirty years, I think as a group they would be far more likely to produce work of declining value. Still, your hypothesis statement is sticky and I’d like to see you expound further. I suggest there are three things here. First, being able to identify what is valuable (and what isn’t). Second, knowing what it takes to complete valuable work from valuable insights (and what is not necessary). Those two were from your hypothesis statement. Your part about it being easier to be busy than valuable reminds me of mindfulness meditation. Third, being mindful of the work you are doing and realizing quickly when it has drifted away from what is valuable.
    I like your blog. Thanks!


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