Grasping for Gratitude as an Academic Part 1: Having Situational Awareness

I’ve considered many times renaming my blog as “Grasping for Gratitude as an Academic.”  Maybe it’s because I like alliteration or just that sometimes I think I need to remind myself of the fact that I should be grateful more in my life. Either way, it been a nagging feeling I’ve had for a number of months.  I know the exact day I had this situational awareness: I was meeting with a dear friend and fellow scholar in math teacher education for a paper we were working on. When our phones connected, the first words out of our mouths were “Oh my god. Look at how busy I am? Like I. am. just. drowning in work….”

Every time someone asks me “How are things going? Still making progress towards tenure?”

The conversation would always start off like this. It quickly devolved into a strange moment where I recognized that we were sharing things to prove how each of us were more busy than the other– as if we needed to have some validation for our work that we weren’t getting from our own immediate community.

cats treadmill
Pretty close to how I felt all the time. Trying to feel like I was keeping up with my friends, but knowing that we both are still on a treadmill.

I suddenly lost situational awareness, stopped actively listening to my friend and continued a conversation in my own head:

I get it. You’re busy. So I am. So is everyone. I hate that we start each conversation like this. These conversation just raises my anxiety and I am left with a feeling of “you’re just not doing enough I guess, Crystal.” Why does it have to be like this? Why do we get ourselves in this feedback loop all the time? Oh no….  I am SO complicit in this too!! I wonder if they are having the same conversation in their head about me as I chatter on about my busy workload and commitments. They’ve been talking for about ten minutes and I have no idea of what they’ve actually said…

After a few of these “thinking in my head instead of actively listening” moments, I finally decided that I needed to make a change in the next conversation. I needed to not get caught up in the loop by what someone else was sharing. I needed to not wrap someone up in my own issues as a means of getting a self-check about my own productivity and sense of status in the world (“I am on the path towards progress, right? RIGHT?”). I might need to be more direct if this is actually going to stick. I hoped that they would understand where I am coming from.

honesty spartans

So I started to practice with every friend I talked to for a week. Every time I would strike up a conversation and they would ask, how are things, I would respond by saying “They’re going. My students did something really cool yesterday and I’ve love to share it with you.” I did this EVEN WHEN I so wanted to lie to them and say “I am drowning and I really need you to listen to me vent.”



Sometimes I could see the “Look How Busy I Am” feedback loop starting.  I’d pause the conversation and gently remind them that I know they’re busy (even though I wanted to jump right in and share my own story).  I told them I saw how busy they were based on their Facebook posts about a new grant they got or in seeing the latest table of contents from a top-tier journal.  I see how hard they really work and I am inspired to be even remotely as successful as they are. I know I’ll always strive harder the next day to do better but… I have to be ok with my good work for now. Because right now, my friend, I am grasping for gratitude in my life. If I let another week go by and don’t pause to find and embrace the gratitude, another six years will go by in a blur.

Typically these moments would be warmly received because my friends would know that I come from a place of love and care (Thank you again to Sandra Crespo for that wonderful mantra). But some of them would still slip back in to the loop and say “I know we should be grateful, but….seriously. I am just SOOO busy.”

john cusack straight face.gif
I tried.

The “Look How Busy I Am” conversation shouldn’t be surprising to us. It is a game we’ve designed for ourselves. It feels like it’s a part of the very fabric of our nature in this job– we don’t just settle for an answer to the research question and then leave it to move on to something else. Instead, we seek to find new questions and ways to continue our work. And working towards tenure typically doesn’t help our sense of well-being and productivity — the process tends to perpetuate narrative that your good will never be good enough (and there will always be a “Reviewer 2” out in the world who wants to completely tear apart your manuscript submission just for the sake of it.)

Our profession also has us checking our CV to count how many papers we have published, under review, and in progress. The “Look How Busy I Am” mantra is everywhere and we can’t escape it.  What’s worse is that some of us don’t even know we are doing it to our doc students too– we are training them to engage in the  “Look How Busy I Am” conversation, even among themselves (I hear them in the cubicle and it makes me sad to think that I’ve helped to perpetuate this expectation of how we talk with each other). I don’t want that for them — they deserve so many opportunities to flourish by supporting each other without constant comparing and measuring. It’s not healthy and it’s not sustainable. And I need to stop being complicit in this.

One day I’ll get this habit down. But for now, I’ll just be grateful to hear what others do so that I can continue to learn from you and your practice.

2 Replies to “Grasping for Gratitude as an Academic Part 1: Having Situational Awareness”

  1. This is definitely something I’ve been trying to counter too, thanks for sharing. I have also been trying to figure out what busy means. Does it mean we have a lot to do? If so, that isn’t busy, that’s the norm. Someone posted today on FB that she was not working today. I loved it because it shows she is having a life outside of work and proud of it. I am actively looking for more ideas on how to avoid this conversation as well.


    1. I completely agree! I think we need to publicly post more about how we can change this norm among ourselves! And I completely agree with you about the notion of being busy! If I just pause for a minute to catch my breath, I feel bad. That’s not normal and I don’t know (yet) how to say to myself “you can take the day to pause” (and believe it). Looking forward to trying though!


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