It was my first business trip as Associate Director for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network, and it was going great. I had visited a couple of my oldest friends, who soon became my first financial supporters. At their church, they had introduced me to a PhD candidate who immediately understood and appreciated the idea behind ESN. This job is going to be easy, I thought. Then the PhD candidate said, “There’s someone you’ve got to meet. She’s the associate dean for the largest university in the state, and she’s sitting right over there in the first pew.” Excellent! Another convert to the cause of ESN.
“Hi, my name is Mike, and I work with InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network”
“Really?” Her eyebrow went up. “What do you do?”
“I help students who are trying to get their PhDs and become professors.”
“Oh? And do you have a PhD?”
I didn’t like where this was going. “No, I don’t.”
“Then how could you possibly help?”
The conversation went downhill from there. At one point, she even said, “I don’t see the point in trying to ‘help’ students trying to become professors. If they can’t make it on their own, they don’t deserve to make it at all.”
Here was the exact kind of person that I thought would support my work wholeheartedly, and instead she dismissed it as a complete waste of time.
It’s (Usually) Not About You
When someone immediately responds to your work with such a negative reaction, it usually has nothing to do with you or your work. How could it? They’ve only encountered it for the first time a few seconds before. They’ve barely had time to process your words, much less reflect on the value and execution of your project.
Instead, their reaction is likely based on something in their own background or circumstances. Perhaps you remind them of someone they had a bad experience with. Perhaps you’re catching them on a really bad day. Perhaps your work touches on a subject they happen to have extremely strong feelings about.
With this associate dean, something in my first few words had tapped into something in her personal history that I still don’t fully understand. My best guesses are that she had seen undeserving candidates for universities positions receive undue consideration because of personal connections, or that she had seen too many naïve Christian students who thought their good intentions would compensate for their lack of academic ability. Either way, it wasn’t me that she was shooting down; it was unnamed opponents from her past.
How Should You Respond?
Don’t take it personally. Their reaction really doesn’t have anything to do with you or your work, so do your best to avoid an emotional response that you might regret later. Now, this is easier said that done, especially when the person is important to you, like your parents or your supervisor. Even they, however, are people too, and have bad days, personal baggage, etc., just like everyone else. If you have ever worked in a service position, you know that people act badly for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with your performance. Treat two people exactly the same; one will think you’re a prince, while the other files a complaint with your manager. Remember: it’s not about you.
Determine whether it’s worth pressing on to improve their opinion of your work. In many cases, it’s not worth either your time or your energy. Not everything is meant for everybody, and you have a very limited ability to control the opinions and tastes of others. If the person is important to you, though, or could play an important role in helping you, it might be worth it. In those cases, try to find something they already value that can serve as an entryway to what you’re trying to do. See, too, if you can understand why their initial reaction was so negative.
Seek any truth in their comments – even if they don’t recognize it themselves. As I reflected on my disastrous conversation with the dean, I realized there were several important lessons I could learn:
- Like many professors, she was very sensitive to the suggestion that she might need “help” in her academic career, since it could imply that her work doesn’t stand on its own.
- Like many professors, including (especially?) Christian ones, she had a complicated relationship with campus ministries. When I introduced myself to her, she probably thought back to all the other campus ministers she had met over the years, the majority of whom would have been nothing but a hindrance to a student trying to earn a PhD.
- Even though I knew that my work had value, I needed to find a better way to communicate that value to others, especially to those who had already found success in academia and could serve as advocates for my work.
Which leads to my next point…
Expect resistance – especially if your work is challenging or groundbreaking. In retrospect, I should have expected the dean to have serious reservations about my work. For ESN to succeed, it would have to challenge the existing system of higher education, a system under which the dean had been quite successful. Further, while there were already support programs for PhD students, almost all of them were run by universities themselves. A private nonprofit running such a program would raise all sorts of questions about intent and effectiveness, especially in the mind of an administrator.
If you’re trying something new or unusual, or your work challenges existing assumptions about how things should work in the world, then many – even most – people will question what you’re doing and saying, “It will never work.” Perhaps it won’t – that’s the problem with doing something new and untested. But it might change the world.
Look for encouragement and guidance from people who know and respect you. Don’t let quick judgments, whether good or bad, be the main feedback you receive. Nurture relationships with a few trusted friends, and seek them out on a regular basis. I have a few friends who know me and my story well enough that they can speak into my life with real authority. Their encouragement and occasional corrections mean far more because they know what I’ve been through, where I’ve come from, and what I’m trying to accomplish. It’s their voices that I want in my life, not the careless dismissals of strangers.
Photo credit: Chris Dent via Flickr
- By the way, I think the same is true of immediate, strongly positive reactions. Even when someone thought that ESN was the best thing they had ever heard of, I discovered that they usually needed a longer conversation (even multiple ones) before they really understood the purpose and goals of the organization. Think about the first time you ever heard of something revolutionary, like Facebook or Twitter. It probably took you a while to see the true value of it. Someone who reacts with immediate enthusiasm probably reacts to everything like that, and their enthusiasm for your work will last until they encounter the next new thing. ↩
- When I introduced myself to another professor and told him I worked for a campus ministry, he immediately said, “I’m not coming to your pizza party.” ↩