The Joyful Professor

You can shift from surviving the life of a faculty member to thriving as one, writes Barbara Spang Minsker.

September 17, 2010

If anyone had told me four years ago that I would be publishing a book called The Joyful Professor: How to Shift from Surviving to Thriving in the Faculty Life, I would have had a great laugh. At that time, I was in full survival mode and hadn’t a clue how to succeed in academia any other way, although I certainly longed for a saner lifestyle.

On the surface, I had all the trappings of academic and personal success: full professor at a top research university, lots of awards, millions of dollars in external funding, increasing leadership responsibilities in exciting national and campus initiatives, a strong marriage of nearly 20 years, and two sons with whom I was deeply connected. Despite these outer measures of success, I had many internal signs that gave me strong doubts as to my ability to sustainably continue what I was doing.

I loved the challenges and possibilities I could create in large interdisciplinary projects, but the interpersonal issues that came up and work overload were building symptoms of chronic stress. I had debilitating migraines that sent me to bed for a day every few months and had regular bouts with allergies and colds. I worried a lot and regularly had "transportation nightmares" in which I dreamed that I couldn’t get my act together to catch my next vital plane, train, or bus.

Fortunately I had a highly supportive provost at the time (thank you, Linda Katehi) who encouraged me to find a leadership training course that would fit my needs. After checking out available options and gathering recommendations, I chose one at the Center for Authentic Leadership. Although it wasn’t geared towards academics specifically, I liked the way it was focused solely on the communication aspects of leadership, which was where I needed help.

To say that CAL’s programs were mind-blowing and life-changing would be an understatement. After completing CAL’s 2.5-year Future Thinking advanced leadership program this April, which involved quarterly workshops and weekly conference calls to learn and practice more effective communication approaches and try them out in our lives, my stress levels have dramatically declined and my joy has increased exponentially, yet I’m still just as productive in my work (if not more so). Allergies and migraines are pretty much gone.

All this came from a lot of hard development work, understanding my own strengths and weaknesses, my fundamental needs that I’ve often ignored in taking care of others and the things I “should” be doing, and how to better handle conflicts and connect with others. For example, I learned how many people view the uncertainty of conversations as downright scary, and in fact I used battle language to describe my interactions with colleagues (e.g., “he hit me with that”). By the end of a day of meetings, I would invariably have a headache (I called it that “head in a blender feeling”) and be exhausted. Once CAL helped me to see this mindset and learn how to bring a healthier mindset and techniques into conversations (conversations as an adventure to find creative solutions that are workable for all parties), my headaches disappeared, I spend less time and energy dealing with conflicts, and I have new energy to bring to all aspects of my life.

I’ve also focused on simplifying all aspects of my life (e.g., I gave up the gardening and recreational shopping, which I enjoy but are “pebbles,” to make more room for the “rocks” that I really love -- more on that distinction later) and finding better integration of work and home life (e.g., maintaining more flexible working times and working at home frequently so that I can be more available for my family).

I’m still learning and growing in a lifelong development journey, but wanted to see if I could help the many other over-stressed faculty by publishing The Joyful Professor guide and developing an accompanying workshop with help from the Center for Training and Professional Development at the University of Illinois. Our first workshops filled within 30 minutes of their announcement, so I know there is a lot of need out there.

How can you bring more joy into your life and reduce stress? There is a story circulating on the internet that sums it up nicely:

A philosophy professor picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks about 2″ in diameter. He then asked the students in his class if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar and the pebbles rolled into the open areas between the rocks.He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He then asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous — yes.

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and proceeded to pour their entire contents into the jar — effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

“Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things – your family, your spouse, your health, your children – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else. The small stuff.

“If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take your husband or wife out dancing.

“Take care of the rocks first — the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for 2 cups of coffee with a friend.”

While the message of this story is intuitive and simple, implementing it in your life is not straightforward. I have no trouble identifying and minimizing the sand.

But differentiating the rocks from the pebbles and minimizing the pebbles is much harder. A key element of this process is identifying what your top soulful values are. There CAL programs suggest that there are nine basic soulful values that all of us strive to fulfill. Most people have three or four of the nine that are their “to die for” needs, and if they are not met it can lead to health problems and even addictions. I won’t list all of the soulful values here, but my top soulful values are workability and feasibility, learning and adventure, and making a difference and contributing.

Once you know what your top soulful values are, you can ensure that your “rocks” meet your needs and avoid wasting time on less important pebbles and sand. The Joyful Professor approach involves listing some near-term professional and personal projects and goals that you’re interested in pursuing. The most critical step for bringing joy to your life is in making the connection from your goals back to your soulful values. This will ensure that your goals will bring you true passion and joy, rather than the endless list of “shoulds” that offer little inspiration. Once your goals are clarified, you can then work on simplifying your life to give you time to focus on these essentials, weeding out or delegating the rest.

This kind of thinking is essential for all career stages, from assistant professor to emeritus professor. At the assistant professor level, it’s essential to figure out the most critical needs to make tenure and to maintain a healthy home life, particularly for those with young children (my younger son was born in my second year at Illinois, so I know how challenging those early years can be). Post-tenure, the menu of exciting opportunities expands dramatically and selecting wisely among them is critical to promotion to full professor and beyond, not to mention maintaining a healthy personal life. I’ve also had new retirees in my workshops who are trying to figure out what to do with all their newfound free time, something the rest of us can only dream about.

Going through this process of goal-setting and focusing requires some upfront time investment, but will pay back huge returns in freeing up your creativity and energy to meet the goals that you care about. In fact, I’m working fewer hours now than I have in the past, but accomplishing more because I’m focusing on the most critical aspects. Just keep in mind that simplifying and focusing your life is an ongoing journey that will evolve over time, but I can tell you from personal experience that it is well worth the effort.


Barbara Spang Minsker is professor and associate provost fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More information about her retreats and workshops may be found here.


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