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Effective, Successful, Happy Academic

n-1: why academics need to remember death to live well

It offers a vital perspective for career and life decisions.

BY ALEXANDER CLARK & BAILEY SOUSA | SEP 27 2022

One day, your days will run out. None of us truly know precisely how long we each have left to live, but every day we are each inexorably one day closer to our death: n-1.

We lose sight of this truth not only because of Western culture’s avoidance of death and mortality, but because as academics we construct an edifice to counter our own temporality. Formed from our daily preoccupation with the next teaching, research and community output on our resumé, our contributions may well now have the potential to live on forever —but we do not. While our personal beliefs on what happens after our physical death differ (at least we all know for sure no one wants to come back as a provost!), before academics die, there are universalities of academic work and time that must not be lost.

We’ve reflected a lot on the status of academic work as extreme knowledge work. Work, by definition, that requires daily, hourly and momentary choices around setting priorities. Work that is, by definition, not only mind-blowingly diverse in range across teaching, research and service, but also mind-blowingly complex in nature.

It’s not only our academic work that’s unique to each of us, but the time we allocate to doing it, too. Time is a resource like no other. Unlike money, time cannot be saved from one day to the next. Nor can time be exchanged from one person to another, or be invested today for a higher return tomorrow. Your personal daily allocation of 1,440 minutes, once gone, is never to return. And days don’t keep coming to you forever.

What, then, are academics’ biggest mistakes as they contemplate this mystery around life and death, time and work?

Thinking work, like time, is plentiful or infinite

We may recoil from the cliché that the present is a gift, but we are each on an inevitable physical journey – and we only get one. Too often we live and work as if time is less precious and more plentiful than it actually is. The average human lifespan is 4,000 weeks, and when sleeping and eating is factored in, our time to work and live falls to 3,000 weeks or less. Your time is ending sometime, and it’s not too far away.

Working passively

Too often we act like our daily work doesn’t and cannot involve choice: that we are passive in the face of inevitable academic workload and complexity. Understandably this does not feel good: the work masters us. Feeling overwhelmed dominates, over making  efforts to work differently, or to even consider that  academic work involves a myriad of learnable skills.

Choosing work over life

Academics commit decades of their lives to their research, teaching, or other work passions — grant after grant, paper after paper, lecture after lecture. Senior positions that swallow up vast swaths of our time outside “working hours” in early mornings, evenings, weekends and vacations. Time that you’re never getting back. Ever.

We have worked with academics who have literally worked themselves into death or disability. The daily tides of (predominantly) self-imposed work expectations gradually drown them and their vitality. Some die on — and for — the job, while others are left near the end of their careers with a crushing hollowness and bewilderment: was it all worth it? And at what costs: our relationships, health, or wider interests? We may yearn to wind back the clock to make different choices, n-1 marches on.

Working with bitterness or regret

Being beholden to the past is seldom good for us. Over time, every academic experiences personal difficulties and disappointment that give rise to negative reactions, such as hypercriticism, bitterness or anger. Negativity can come to own and envelope us, fostering deep and intractable cynicism, and all kinds of behaviours, from passive aggression and bullying, to procrastination and inaction. This is no way to live.

A memento mori

With the knowledge of work and time at the forefront, what does the reminder that we each must die bring to academics’ work and life?

A memento mori gives vital perspective for career and life decisions. How much do you want to be remembered for your work outputs and accomplishments versus your personal relationships and impact? How would you act differently with this in mind? With a renewed awareness of the uniquely precious passing nature of time and your life, how would you approach your next and future work meeting or conflicts differently? How do you choose to show up?

Often, we stay in our same patterns of thought and action — the notion of path dependency — and don’t change as much as we could or should over time. We need proactive approaches to tame and focus our academic work to better align with our bigger values. This is why your choices around academic work must always be based on your transcending values, with your sense of career success being expressed in your daily and even momentary priorities, goals and tasks.

We each get one chance. Just one go at this day, this situation and this life. To have no regrets before it’s too late, prioritize your efforts and time based on your values, and the accomplishments that truly matter to you.

Is this sense of a memento mori morose? The very opposite. The contemplation of our own deaths as academics gives a vital spark for truly courageous choices for life and work. Start today — because we’re all living n-1.

ABOUT ALEXANDER CLARK & BAILEY SOUSA
Alexander Clark & Bailey Sousa
Alex is the dean of health disciplines at Athabasca University. Bailey is on secondment to the ministry of advanced education for the government of Alberta, from the University of Alberta. They are both founders of The Effective, Successful, Happy Academic, and the authors of "How to Be a Happy Academic" (Sage: London, 2018), they share a passion for effectiveness and aspiration in academic work.
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  1. Tony / September 28, 2022 at 13:41

    Hi,

    Interesting comment — the trouble with gaining this kind of perspective is getting to the conclusion that the work and legacy we leave is incredibly unimportant and trivial next to the miracle of experiencing life on planet earth in a vast universe each day. We can experience this precious consciousness only for a short time, and so, what rational person would sacrifice that time with doing work that will ultimately be forgotten, if not by others, certainly by us (since we will be dead anyway).

    Once you play the mortality / existence card, it is very hard to come back down to everyday work life and fool ourselves that any of it is important in the grand scheme of things. So I agree with the premise, but I am not sure if practically speaking, a focus on this philosophy will increase our productivity, or just give us even more reason to avoid our many voluntary aspects of work (much of what academics do), basically. Do we want more “quiet quitting” due to existential crises of existence felt by privileged professors? Put another way, how do we make work still seem “meaningful” from such a broad perspective highlighting our mortality, such that we still want to put a lot of energy in?

    • Tim / October 1, 2022 at 19:21

      To me if our work is truly helpful for other fellow human beings that is an enough motive to keep going, even with keeping death in mind. Th problem that we spend a lot of time doing things that we can not justify it’s importance, for our selves first and for others.

  2. Jay Aich / October 1, 2022 at 00:02

    It seems that to me that a lot of academics in the humanities and social sciences have recently based their work on bitterness or resentment. This piece is a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection on that score.

  3. Jon Driver / October 19, 2022 at 14:08

    I hope many of the workaholics I have met in a forty year university career read this, and explore the ideas further. It is so important to make time outside your academic work for three things: social relationships (romantic/family/friends); activities/hobbies unrelated to your academic work; health/fitness.
    There is no doubt that success as a teacher or researcher brings deep feelings of satisfaction, but there is so much more to life than that.
    Now we just have to convince the granting councils and the tenure and promotion committees to develop assessment practices that don’t incentivize people to work 60 hours a week and forgo their vacations…..