Tag Archives: disruptivity

Getting out alive

No escape: decal of a struck-out person fleeingOne Friday in May of 2011, I locked up my shared office, went to the pub with some colleagues and students, and said goodbye to my job as a senior lecturer in psychology.

On the following Tuesday (it was a bank holiday weekend) I started a three-month stint as an intern at a then-mid-sized software company. They were pretty clear that there wouldn’t be more work at the end of it; all I had going for me was that they were paying me — a lot less than my academic job paid, but hey, it was money. (Let’s not even start on the ridiculous exploitation of young people by companies looking for free labour, or how unpaid internships exclude those who can’t afford to work for free.)

Anyway, so … lunacy, right?

Maybe. But maybe it saved my life.

I cannot possibly supply a complete list of the things that drove me out of higher education. Some of the factors, in no particular order, were:

* the way the system effectively punished people for caring about ( = preferentially putting time into) teaching, denying them a legitimate career route with equivalent promotion opportunities;

* relatedly, teaching and educational research being seen as second-class citizens to subject-specific academic research. I won lots of praise from colleagues and students for my interrogation of and challenges to typical lecture-theatre methods … and nothing else. Alanis Morissette was right: it really is like 10,000 slideshare views when all you need is a peer-reviewed journal paper.

* seeing colleagues struggle with depression and stress-related illnesses, without support or sympathy from senior management; the relentless, meaningless “do more with less” that rubbed everyone rawer, year on year

* not being allowed to reform teaching on a large scale, because timetables/curriculum/this is how we’ve always done it

* widespread bullying by an incompetent manager, to the absolute indifference of senior management

* prioritisation of commerce over crafting quality learning experiences; massified, McDonaldsized education

* ceaseless adding to the already-overloaded workload of academic staff with no thought for how much work they were already doing (see also: aggressive expansion of higher education; franchised degree programmes)

* resistance — in some cases hostility — to change and growth (personal and institutional)

* too much time, distance and obfuscation between what we did all day and how the organisation as a whole performed

* an itch I had that wasn’t being scratched: creating and building useful, beautiful things (there’s only so far even I can go with lecture slides)

* realising that there were plenty of people out there doing jobs who weren’t exhausted (because they weren’t working 55-hour weeks), weren’t demoralised, weren’t on the edge of a mental health precipice, and who could see, almost every day, a connection between what they had done and how their organisation was moving forward)

* the sad thought that maybe higher education was broken and that, despite having nearly boundless energy to do something about that, I couldn’t fix it on my own, or even alongside people who agreed with me

* weariness at being an ‘expert’ all the time. (Maybe being an expert sounds great to you. Maybe I just have imposter syndrome. But trust me: having undergraduates unquestioningly write down everything you say gets old.)

The drain of good people from higher education has become A Thing. Way back, I wrote about Mark Changizi’s decision to leave, and since then there have been several waves of “screw this, I’m out” from academic refuseniks who just didn’t want a piece of that anymore. I’ve written before about disruptivity and taking risks, and recently I talked about it in person too (slides from the talk here). There were some pretty low moments; I remember sitting in an all-day meeting that was absolutely a waste of everyone’s time, never more so when the person chairing the thing visibly gave up bothering with it, but kept us all there anyway. I remember thinking, “I have to get out of here, but I don’t know how.” At that point, had I needed to reapply for my own job, I might not even have been granted an interview. I was perishing, not publishing. Despite passionate advocacy for teaching quality, and throwing myself into researching better teaching methods, none of it was doing me a blind bit of good.

So I left.

It’s taken me three years to write about this, and even now I’m a little hesitant to talk about it, in case I accidentally explode, covering everyone around me in something unpleasantly bitter and acidic. That sounds pretty overdramatic, but teaching was, as the cliché goes, my vocation. I loved — LOVED— my students. I never understood the detachment and burnout you sometimes see in academia (where, fortunately, the consequences are rather less severe than in disciplines like nursing). Every single student had potential, even the ones who didn’t know why they were there — and you didn’t have to dig very deep to find a human being who was just trying to do well and figure out how they fitted into the world. They were all, individually, amazing people. I still want to write something for and about them. But this is not that post.

In the first year after I left, I fielded several calls and emails from other academics (mostly in the behavioural sciences) who wanted to get out too, but didn’t know how. This post is for you guys, and especially for D, who’s waited a long time for an answer, and probably gave up on me way back: let me help you remember all the things you’re capable of. You might never get all the dents out of your self-esteem after the years you’ve spent in academia, but I might be able to help you with it a little, if you’ll let me.

Let’s dispense with the easy stuff first. You (probably) have a PhD. I’ve alluded before to how people Out There are actually impressed by this. Lord knows nobody in academia gives a rat’s ass, and so neither do you, anymore. But think for a minute what that means. Firstly, you are an expert at something, however much you might not feel like one. This is huge. You have in-depth knowledge of something. Don’t gimme no backtalk about how that’s only useful in academia. That’s just the story you tell yourself because you’re unsure of what to do next, or because academia has left you with Stockholm Syndrome. You know stuff about stuff, and somewhere out there is an organisation with someone in it who wants you to do your thing, for them. As an example, I’ve taken what I knew about cognitive psychology and put it to work in software usability and user experience, and information architecture. I took a decade’s experience of running research with human participants and channeled it into learning how to research the ways that people interact with software. Somewhere out there is a practical application for the academic stuff you know how to do. It might even be a non-profit, if you’re uncomfortable at the thought of doing the corporate dance. (It wasn’t all theory, either — I got to have fun too, storyboarding and scripting educational material like this short animation, which I decided would be more entertaining for everyone if we did it entirely in rhyme.)

A second consequence of having done a PhD is that you are persistent as fuck. This is one of the best-kept secrets of academia: even the basic entry criterion requires immense tenacity. Whether or not you have a doctorate, continuing to put one foot in front of the other for year after year, sometimes in the face of harsh criticism and crushing disappointment, is a measure of what Taekwon-do calls indomitable spirit. Treasure that; it was hard won, and it will get you ’most anywhere. You can absolutely call on it to get out of your academic job if you’re unhappy there.

You (probably) aren’t fazed by addressing groups of people. Don’t get me wrong: for the first few years, the really big lectures (nearly 450 students at Peak Psychology — those were the Cracker years) were pretty scary. Some weeks I was literally only one chapter ahead of the class, because when you first start teaching after your PhD, like the hedgehog, you know one one big thing … but departmental teaching structure requires that, like the fox, you know many things. There’s a fine line between that existence and imposter syndrome. But eventually, you learn to be heard for 50 minutes or 100 minutes at a time. You learn to craft stories and handle questions and manage crowd control in a big room. Of course, it doesn’t stop there if you present your work at conferences, where the questions are a lot harder, sometimes even hostile.

And now think of all the times in so-called corporate jobs when people are called on to present information and take questions. You’ve been doing that for so long, it’s not even a thing anymore. You intuitively know how much information will fill an hour. You can plan and deliver a workshop without drama (unless the workshop is actually about drama). You might not love it, but it’s something you can do. If you are lucky, you will love doing it. Either way, someone out there is willing to pay you to do this.

You are adaptable and flexible in your thinking, because you aren’t afraid of complexity, ambiguity, or new information. The other day, my husband, also an academic by training, said “I’m really glad to have had an education and career that has involved always being on the edge of intellectual comfort. I think [that] makes it much easier to learn new things.” I couldn’t agree more. Academia is all about re-evaluating your position when new shit has come to light. Sure, this makes it harder for other people to get a straight answer, because your response is usually something like “Well … that depends. A, but on the other hand B, and in fact if we consider C …” It might be infuriating for others that you can’t give them something that’s pithily black and white, but living with this relativism represents a daily practice in flexible thinking, and in not reaching conclusions so entrenched that you can’t argue your way back out of them later as more information becomes available. You’ve become the kind of person who, if they really want to know something, reads or asks until they understand it. Maybe you’ll even get massively into the topic as you start to find out more. Do you know how many organisations out there are crying out for people who can do that, who are intellectually self-sufficient?

You can effectively argue a point, in writing and (probably) in person. Being able to read or listen to something someone else has written, and unpick and critique it, is immensely valuable. Our education system doesn’t really foster critical thinking skills as much as it might, but you have had plenty of practice defending your own work against this dispassionate taking-apart. If you’ve done much teaching (or marking of student work), then you’ve also had the experience of trying to explain to non-experts why an argument doesn’t stand up, or is subtly wrong. Out there, in Beyond Academialand, are many, many people, some of them quite senior, who need help with this — often because they want to get it right, but also sometimes because they don’t want to look like idiots. At least some of them are willing to pay you to do it.

You have immense resilience and can work as hard as anyone. It’s still sometimes a shock to me that in my post-academic life, I get to arrive at work around 9 and leave again around 5 or 6. I don’t take my work home with me, beyond idle mulling of the occasional knotty problem. I don’t work weekends. I don’t feel remotely guilty for not working evenings and weekends. Contrast that with the typical lives of academics, who pull long hours and spend so many evenings and weekends writing papers. Some of that is for love, but much of it is practicality — because who can get anything done during the week when there is teaching and admin to be done and people keep knocking on the door? There is no traffic-cop for academic workload; it just keeps piling up. If something else needs to be done, because the university or the subject governing body says so, then somehow it will just have to get done, and that means longer hours — or shoddier work. Like the triangle says, you can have it good and fast, or fast and cheap, or good and cheap, but you can’t have all three. As for resilience, it’s only anecdotal, but I have seen a lot of academics — and teachers generally — put off being ill until a time when it was less inconvenient (the holidays). Don’t tell me from resilience.

I’m not saying there aren’t jobs out there where your employer will cheerfully bleed you dry, or that there aren’t places with long-hours cultures that disadvantage anyone not young, single or rudely healthy. But either you’re used to those long hours anyway, or you’re highly motivated to work somewhere where they’re not expected. Your life can be better than this.

There will be some readjustment; this is unavoidable. The first interview I went to when I was trying to get out of academia was with a medium-sized, well-respected software company in Cambridge. I was fairly pleased with how I’d done until about halfway home, when I started to realise all the rookie errors I’d made. That trickle became a flood, until I thought I would die of embarrassment. It took me months to get over it, but they were right not to hire me, because I didn’t have enough experience: they couldn’t afford to spend time bringing me up to speed while they were trying to ship a product. As I gained more experience in software and digital, I had to learn the hard way to think in hours and days, not in semesters and years. To track time, and report back to people who needed to know what I’d been doing. I had to learn to work in a team again — to have conversations about work, with the people I worked with, every day. To own it when I messed up, instead of hoping nobody would notice (out here, they do notice. And that’s a good thing). To keep regular hours and be in the office every day. This might sound regimented compared to the largely unmonitored life of an academic, but it was surprisingly easy to adapt to. The same self-discipline that got me out of bed at 6am to give a 9am lecture (I had a one-hour commute, which, when it went wrong, went really wrong — and you can’t be late for 200 people) helped me adjust to keeping regular office hours.

Adjustment isn’t big or hairy enough to justify putting off leaving. Admittedly, going in somewhere as an intern was a relatively safe thing for me to do: the company’s expectations were fairly low, so it was an easy bar to clear, and they got someone with way more experience and knowledge than they were paying for. Everybody won.* I’m not saying I didn’t screw up a few times, but every single incident taught me something, and the enforced humility was good for me. And that’s the thing: a radical change of environment was good for me. Saying “I don’t know” and not being an expert — or having anybody treat me like one — was good for me. Those first few months, by the time I got to Friday I was totally exhausted, because I was having to learn so many new things. It was like being back in school again, and I mean that in the best ways. But without the feelings of inadequacy; occasionally I would enjoy surprising people with interesting and relevant things from my background in psychology. And one thing I never expected about the transition was how much more seriously people take you when you’re older, even if you don’t really know anything (as opposed to when you’re 18 or 21 and absolutely everyone except you knows that you know nothing). It’s an unfairness, but given how much our world capitulates to the cult of youth, especially if you work in software, it’s one I can live with. And anyway, 37, my age when I went off to be an intern, is hardly old. Point is: my life is better in almost every way.**

This has now come full-circle: my husband just quit academia. Despite a publication record considerably more handsome than mine ever was, he grew tired of the succession of temporary contracts and empty promises of a permanent, senior position. He doesn’t quite know yet what he’s going to do; I’m finally returning the favour he did me when he agreed to be the breadwinner while I figured out how I was going to make a living. We don’t have kids, and I acknowledge that it would have been a lot harder for either of us to do this alone. But I’m not convinced any of it’s insurmountable.

Look: my old colleagues are tired and bruised after a long battle to see if anyone was going to have redundancy forced on them (end result: no, but four voluntary redundancies. I think the oldest is in their mid-40s. These are not people taking a sweet handout before sloping off into retirement — they are getting the hell outta Dodge). Nobody trusts management anymore, and who can blame them? Academic staff have seen their jobs go from does-anyone-want-to-get-a-coffee to locking-myself-in-the-office-and-taking-my-antidepressants in a span of a few years. This is not what we signed up for.

So go, or at least think seriously about going. Think hard about all those hard-won skills that you take for granted every single day. Skills employers want. Skills that someone somewhere else will pay you to use. I use what I learned in psychology (the theoretical stuff and teaching-related skills) every single day. I still use empirical data to justify decisions — the decisions just have different, more practical, and usually more immediate consequences. And I really like that. I like visible progress. I mean, there is literally a weekly chart of how much closer our team is getting to where we want to be. It’s incredibly motivating.

And if you choose to stay (and I have the utmost respect for those who do), make sure it really is a choice. Don’t tell yourself you’re no good for anything else, because that’s just not true. Call me (my personal inbox is in perpetual meltdown, but I have plenty of time to take calls on my lovely walking commute). Call any of the people who have decided academia’s no longer worth the pain. We think you’re amazing, and we’d be happy to remind you of that anytime.

[Edit: I neglected to thank the many people who helped me make this transition. As well as being eternally grateful to my husband for his love and encouragement, I am forever indebted to the friends who let me stay with them while I was interning (and who refused to take any money from me), and to the many friends and former colleagues who wished me luck and success, and offered connections they thought might be helpful (and who, if they had any doubts about my plans, kept those to themselves). Thank you all :) ]

* except the young person somewhere who might have had the internship instead. I like to think that my time as a lecturer (and for a while as an assistant Taekwon-do instructor), investing time in young people, might begin to make up for some of that, but it still bothers me.

** I miss teaching, I miss my old colleagues, and I miss my students. But I knew I would, and I jumped anyway.


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How to be disruptive: a retrospective primer, with meerkats.

‘Disruptive’ doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Being disruptive used to mean you’d be in trouble pretty soon: with your teachers, your parents; with other kids’ parents. You know — grown-ups. Back then, being disruptive was seen as bad, and not something that would get you very far in life, beyond maybe the head teacher’s office.

Times change. ‘Disruptive’ has now acquired cachet, to the point where it seems in danger of becoming one of those overused words (see also content, innovation, gameification, strategy, etc.) signifying that the speaker might not actually make things for a living1. But underneath all the buzzwords and hype is a kernel of truth: there’s loads of potential value in disrupting those patterns that keep you, or your organisation, down. Shake things up a little.

(I’m not talking about knock-and-run here, by the way — it’s much more like “hmm, I wonder what happens if I do … this?” It’s actually very science lab.)

Over the last couple of months, while I’ve been literally and metaphorically packing up my office, I’ve been thinking a lot about disruptivity and its role in my recent career. I’m using the word ‘disruptivity’ deliberately here, rather than ‘disruptiveness’ or ‘disruption’, since both of those seem to me to connote someone else having screwed something up in a way that is antisocial and anti-progress. Disruptivity is good disruption: it has agency, and can number among its antonyms complacency, stagnation, and that nice cozy place with the sofas, the ‘comfort zone’.

It’s easy to stay inside your comfort zone if you work in a big organisation: there are established procedures and methods, and a culture of handing these things down to the next person. In a big organisation, you really don’ t have to think too hard if you don’t want to, because nearly any question you care to ask has an answer that begins “well, the last time we had to do that, …” I guess it’s probably not worth getting too pissy with organisations about this, because human beings have behaved this way for tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of years, and on the whole it’s served us pretty well. But the flip side of organisational memory is that procedures and practices have a way of stifling creative thinking by squashing people down into silos. You are a lecturer; you are a psychologist. You will give lectures in a prescribed format, in which you will talk about psychology as defined by the requisite accrediting body. You will go to psychology conferences and conduct psychology research. You are a subject-matter expert.

And yeah, I was pretty compliant to begin with. I mean, I didn’t know anything; who does, after spending most of their life in formal education? But, after several years’ consideration, my response to this way of working is “Yeah … no.”

There’s a technique in the cognitive psychology literature called analogical problem-solving [PDF], in which you take your bleeding-edge science problem and try to reframe it in a more familiar context. Analogical problem-solving allows you to take advantage of all the schemas and chunking you’ve developed by spending time in the familiar domain, thereby freeing up more of your cognitive resources to think about the problem at hand. It strikes me that an important prerequisite for disruptivity is the desire or ability to travel towards unfamiliar domains — exploring foreign spaces and the behaviour of the people who live/work there can actually help you think about your existing problems in new ways.

Here’s the thing: all the really cool people I meet are the ones sticking their heads out of their organisationally-sanctioned silos, and asking “Hey, what are those people over there doing, and might it be of value to us?” — the meerkats of the workplace, if you like. Curiosity is disruptive; it’s pretty hard to remain in your comfort-zone when you’ve wandered out of your area of expertise and into someone else’s. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy doing peer observations with my lecturing colleagues: you see styles of teaching and ways of thinking about classroom interaction that you’d otherwise never be exposed to. Good conferences (you know, the ones where there’s space for conversation, not just showboating) are the same.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it actually seems easier to cross these borders on the Internet than in one’s own workplace, maybe because people who are into online networking have effectively put up a sign on their virtual office door that says “please, bother me — I love it!” Compare that with how it feels trying to set up a meeting about that thing with that guy across campus when you’re both really busy. Asynchronous digital media are intrinsically disruptive, because they put you next to people in countries, cultures and professions that you’d never otherwise know anything about — and those people are often meerkats with disruptive ideas of their own. Though I didn’t know it at the time, signing up to Twitter was one of the smartest things I could have done for my career. In fact, about half of those people currently most influential in my life have come to me through the Internets — and they are, without exception, cross-disciplinary ninjas, people for whom the idea of existing in just one silo is just plain ridiculous.

Like Richard Wiseman’s studies showing that ‘lucky’ people are really just those who notice new possibilities [PDF], a big part of embracing disruptivity comes from being open to the potential in life’s random encounters. Example: several years ago, through an old friend of my husband’s, I met the very lovely Rachel Potts. Her job had nothing to do with my job: she worked as a technical author for a software company, while I was a psychology lecturer. But we kept having the most awesome long conversations about communication. And one eventual consequence of this was that I ended up giving a talk at Technical Communication UK. Until then, I’d barely known that technical communicators even existed, much less that they might be interested in applying cognitive psychology to their own work. But boy, were they. And so,
in making my own journey out into a scary new space, it seems like I disrupted a few other people’s complacency, too. (Of course, you can argue that by attending a professional conference, those people had signalled that they were looking for a bit of disruption in their working lives — but props nevertheless to the TCUK team for expanding their speaker base beyond the traditional edges of technical communication.)

If your social circle isn’t putting you together with people who understand your geek thang, just get out there and talk to people who work in a different area. From my conversations with technical writers (most of which were mediated via Twitter; don’t diss the 140), I learned about software simulation. That struck me as pretty cool, so I learned how to use Adobe Captivate and, with a little help and only minor drama, created some resources to help my students learn how to drive statistics software. Conversations with technical authors also helped steered me towards the field of user experience, which has come to form such a huge part of the way I think about interfaces, learning and cognition that I’m shifting careers to go work in UX. The consequences of disruptivity are sometimes unpredictable, but they may also be transformative.

Maybe you like the idea of disruptivity and the cultural exchange of visiting someone else’s sandbox, but career changes and meeting people all sounds a bit extreme? Well, you don’t even have to introduce yourself: just read the Internets. There are all manner of smart bloggers out there who might not do what you do, but who write about it so clearly that you get it, and you get why it’s relevant to you. If you work with people and/or ideas (and if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure that you do), I’d particularly recommend Seth Godin and Rands, and also, though he’s perhaps more of an acquired taste, Merlin Mann.

Your search doesn’t even have to be all that targeted: for me, it started almost by accident with Lawrence Lessig’s ‘Free Culture’ talk from OSCON 20022. What possible value could a psychology lecturer find in a long talk about copyright? Okay, how about a perspective-shifting way of delivering lectures? Lessig’s presentation, and this talk by Dick Hardt, provided the change of reference-frame I needed to give my teaching a good kick up the ass. The ensuing domino effect of making those changes led to research, funding, and paid consultancy, plus a couple of international conferences. And it hooked me up with some really interesting and cool people, and they turned me on to a whole bunch of other new stuff to use in the classroom, like Pecha Kucha. Disruption begets disruption, and after that it’s pretty hard to go back into your silo.

No, check that: it’s impossible to go back into your silo. Disruptivity means rejecting the easy life. You will no longer be satisfied with the explanation that “this is how we do things around here”, because you will know that out there, someone else is doing it better, smarter, more efficiently. You will know this because I read a thing, wait, let me email you the link … You won’t win every argument this way, but you will go forth armed with evidence, and your organisation will be a better place for most of your interventions, which of course is what the whole disruptivity thing is all about.

Lastly, if you really want to be disruptive, leave. [If there’s one link from this post that encapsulates disruptivity, it’s that one. Click through and read; it’s only short.] Leaving isn’t an inevitable consequence of embracing disruptivity, but I’d say it’s a likely one. I mean, you can’t spend all that time out of your silo and not wonder about what else might be out there. But consider, too, that your decision to leave also changes things for the organisation you are leaving. It forces your manager to think about whether you need to be replaced. Co-workers who rely on you will have to seek out alternatives; maybe your decision to leave will prompt some of them to become meerkats. Everyone gets a reminder that there is life out there beyond the organisation’s walls, and I consider that to be an inherently good thing.

So, yeah: leaving an organisation can be your last gift of disruptivity. Make it a good one :)

[This post is dedicated to all my awesome colleagues at UCLan who have borne my clumsy attempts at disruptivity with incredible grace and patience. I will miss you more than I can say.]

[Students — you’re getting a post of your own. Watch this space.]

1 I kid, mostly. I mean, I use these words a lot. But I also think that, when the buzzwords start flying, it’s useful to gauge the ratio between talk and eventual action. And there is a lot of talk on the Internets.

2 In fact, if you want to live a more disruptive life, you should probably just hang out with my husband, since he was the one who turned me on to the Lessig talk, and he stumbles upon a lot of interesting and diverse content.


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