Comparison is the thief of joy

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The source is uncertain (Quote Investigator), but the words are true. I’ve been feeling them deeply at the end of 2021. Many of my colleagues are listing their publications for the year, justifiably proud of their accomplishments. One tweeted about work wins that include one book, four articles, two chapters, five podcast episodes, three reviewed pieces, four opinion pieces, seven book reviews, two reading guides, three keynotes, three guest lectures, and seven panels. I get tired just READING those accomplishments!! Tenure will be no problem. And well deserved. This person is brilliant, determined, hard-working, and forward-thinking. Another, equally brilliant, is designing classes based on dissertation research that will become a book. Google Scholar can be overwhelming when I consider the work of my friends and acquaintances.

Me? Well, there was a book chapter that I actually wrote last December and an article in the Spring. There’s another manuscript that I’m third author on that has been in the works for several years that may or may not ever find a home. At the moment, I don’t have any academic work in progress (although I just remembered I do have a book review to write). Even so, it’s hardly enough work to impress potential employers or tenure reviewers.

But wait. Why do I compare my academic output with those who are at the beginnings of careers that will break boundaries? My goal in academia has never been prodigious publications, but influence on individuals. I earned a PhD so that I could be better equipped to mentor, challenge, and cheer for the next generation of educators. A list of accomplishments may make me happy for a moment, but it doesn’t bring me true joy.

Joy in education for me is when a high school student from the 1990s finds me on social media and tells me that my classroom was a place where she was able to be her authentic self. That she felt heard and celebrated in the community I fostered. Joy comes from other students over the years who have confided in me, long after they left the four walls of the school building that they still remembered the lessons of personal responsibility blended with compassion-and that they took those lessons into their own families and careers. Joy comes when I get an unexpected tweet from a grad student in response to a post about grace that has little to do with school and everything to do with relationships.

I say in my personal teaching statement that my philosophy is a simple syllogism:

  • Every person is a story
  • Every story matters
  • Therefore, every person matters

The things that bring me joy are not accolades or citations (I like them, don’t misunderstand), but the long term relationships that come from who I touch through what I do. That’s the source of my joy in academia. Anything else is frosting on an already delicious cake.

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