Tuesday, 9 September 2014

You can't ever win

Posted by Jean Adams

Brian McNeil sings a song called Sell you labour not your soul. The chorus goes: “Young and old, true and bold/ Sell your labour not your soul/ Solidarity's your goal - join the union”. It invariably involves a lot of audience foot stamping and fist waving.

I was reminded of this song during a conversation with my ‘leadership mentor’ a few months ago. NIHR sent a guy up to Newcastle to watch me at work, feedback on my leadership style, and discuss my career direction with me. My mentor had worked with lots of people funded by NIHR, so when he asked which UK academics I really wanted to be like, he knew the names I reeled off. “If you want to be like them,” he said, “you’re going to have to work more hours”. Then he laughed at me when I told him the university already got enough of my soul and said, “well you know the old saying: ‘if you’re not a socialist by the time you’re 20, you haven’t a heart; if you’re still one by the time you’re 40, you haven’t a brain’”. I still have a few years left to make the full transition.

All the images on work:life balance were cheesy. But I thought you'd be impressed by this photo of Brian McNeill playing the double-kneck bouzouki
There are people at the university that I strongly feel don’t get paid enough to work more than their contracted hours. But that’s not me – I get paid plenty well enough. And it’s not that I don’t feel passionate about (most of) what I do, or find myself enjoying thinking about it when I’m running or climbing hills, or sometimes get so engrossed in it that I’m still at my desk way past home time. I just think there should be more to life than work. That my life, and work, are both better for there being more to life than work.

I know there are many, many people working in public health research (and in lots of other areas) who work more than their contracted hours. In fact, my contract is a little vague about what my ‘contracted hours’ might be. Sometimes it seems like working all the time is the only way to be successful – somehow ‘good’ means ‘lots’. There seems no way to do everything that you want, or have, to do without working all the hours.

Academia is inherently a competitive venture. There is no absolute benchmark of good enough – it’s only ever relative to what other people manage. When one person starts churning out twice as much as anyone else by working longer and longer hours, it puts pressure on the rest of us to do the same. To keep up. Before you know it, you feel guilty every Sunday afternoon you don’t spend at your laptop.

But I have also come across well respected, and undoubtedly successful, academics who tell me how important it is to them not to start work before 8.30am, and not to leave the office after 6pm. Not just because it makes their lives better, but because this is the role model they want to be to those around them. These are not people who are doing sneaky work at home that they don’t let on about. They just seem to be focused in what they agree to do, to do it efficiently, and then to go home and do something else.

It is this type of person that I really want to be like. For me, the challenge is the focus and efficiency, not finding the energy to stay at my desk until midnight – although I would also struggle with that. Every Sunday afternoon that I spend at my laptop I feel that I have failed. I promise myself that next week I will focus more and be more efficient. I list the ways that I waste time and the things I should never have agreed to do. Instead of feeling guilty when I’m not working, I feel guilty when I am.

You can’t ever win.


  1. This has touched a nerve with me. I try to be efficient but end up saying yes to most (if not all) things I'm asked to do. I try to set limits to my email use for instance and tell my postgraduate students that what will impress me is not that they email me at 11 at night. But I do send emails late into night (although I'm getting better at that since I started turning off work emails once I arrive home)! I don't know how you fight the message that 'those who are really successful never switch off'.. Having just come back from my 'holidays' where I had to work because of a grant deadline this week, I feel the same: you can't ever win...

  2. Well Jean, only this morning I was chatting with a friend who told me how she marvels at your productivity. To us, you seem prolific – a somewhat intimidating benchmark. However, I must say that it is bitter-sweet to read that this productivity comes with the cost of guilty laptop Sundays. Every so often people, including researchers, have the right to be human beings rather than human doings. However, you are right in saying that you can’t ever win. This is the problem with competitive systems. We are in an arms race and someone will always be threatening to outgun us. Thus, the goal posts are never still. So perhaps the thing is to redefine “winning”. What if we stopped comparing ourselves to others, or to the standards that we think others have set for us? I saw an interesting TED talk recently by Alain de Botton. In it, he makes a convincing argument for examining your goals and ensuring that they are truly your own. He calls it “a kinder, gentler philosophy of success.” http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_a_kinder_gentler_philosophy_of_success