Stockdale Paradox and Academic Trainees

There is some discussion in various corners of the blogsphere about the Stockdale Paradox, taken from Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins.

Naill Doherty in his blog Disrupting the Rabblement talks about how he thinks this is a great book, and in particular why the perspective of Adm. Jim Stockdale, held by the Vietnamese for many years is good for personal development. This is an old blog post, but I’ve read Doherty off and on for years. I was reminded of this post by IO9, my source for news I care about.

I think the words are useful to trainees in science, too:

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time…

You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Can’t get much more honest than that. If you don’t want the Phd, or TT position or Tenure its glorious self, then you probably won’t get it.

It’s a fine line between believing in yourself and being honest enough to understand reality. That reality includes not only your position as a trainee (or serf), but also what your talents are. The problems with the impostor syndrome (I’ve fooled them all for so very long) fall into both of these baskets.

Many of the failures I’ve seen over the years stem from problems with the second parts. There are people who refuse to acknowledge what they don’t know, what being a trainee is (no, you are not a junior faculty person), or think that there are no nasty creatures in the forest.

Both lots of people I know don’t understand how good they are. They don’t believe they will prevail, that they will succeed. Or they secretly think that they are good enough, but are afraid that by thinking this they will “jinx” their opportunity to succeed.

That these problems break down along gender lines will surprise no one. But other than using that fact as insight into yourself, it doesn’t really matter to you when you think about this as applied to yourself. For mentors, this is one more tool for helping the trainees.

This advice is useful to me, too, in thinking about what comes next for me. I need to be brutally honest with myself about where I am and what I want. Easier said than done.


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