The Lie Guy

Original: Chronicle of Higher Education

You’d think I’d get used to being called a liar. After all, I’ve written a candid, semiautobiographical novel about being a scam artist, been interviewed in the media about my former life of lying, cheating, and drinking, even edited a prominent philosophical collection on deception. But when a colleague recently ridiculed me about being known as a liar, my feelings were hurt. I have a new life. I’ve been clean and sober and “rigorously honest” (as we say in AA) for two years. Still, to tell you the truth (honestly!), I earned my reputation fair and square.

In the Internet age, a sordid past is a matter of very public rec­ord—for that matter, of public exaggeration—and if you write fiction and memoir about your worst days, as I did (and continue to do), even your students will take the time to read the racy parts (or at least excerpts in online interviews of the racy parts, or YouTube interviews about the racy parts).

God bless and keep tenure—I’d probably hesitate to be frank in this essay without it—although, to be fair to my institution, the ignominious stories about me and my novel were out before my committee granted me tenure. “It takes an odd person to work on lying,” my late mentor (and friend and co-author), the philosopher Robert C. Solomon, once told me, himself having written one or two of the best papers on the subject.

When I was 26 years old, in 1993, I dropped out of grad school at the University of Texas at Austin—I was on a fellowship, staring day after day at my stalled dissertation among stacks of books and papers from the Kierkegaard Archive in the Royal Library in Copenhagen—to go into the luxury-jewelry business. I decided to burn all of my bridges. I didn’t fill out any forms. I didn’t have the ordinary courtesy even to contact my two dissertation directors, Solomon and Louis H. Mackey. I just vanished.

I told myself that it was a conscious strategy, to prevent myself from going back, but I also knew the truth: that I was simply too ashamed to tell them that I had gone into business for the money. Like many of our deceptions, mine was motivated by cowardice: “Tell the people what they want to hear,” or, if you can’t do that, simply don’t tell them anything at all.

A few years later, my next-door neighbor (my wife and I had just moved in) caught me in the driveway and asked, “Hey, Clancy. Did you go to grad school at the University of Texas?”

“I did, that’s right.” I was already uncomfortable. I opened the door of my convertible. The Texas summer sun frowned cruelly down on me.

“I’m an editor of Bob Solomon’s. He told me to say hello.”

Busted. This was Solomon’s way of calling me on my b.s. It was his personal and philosophical motto, adopted from Sartre: “No excuses!” Take responsibility for your actions. Above all, avoid bad faith. Look at yourself in the mirror and accept—if possible, embrace—the person that you are.

But I was on my way to work, and Bob Solomon, at that point in my life, was the least of my problems. I had him stored neatly in the mental safety-deposit box of “people I had not lied to but had betrayed in a related way.”

The jewelry business—like many other businesses, especially those that depend on selling—lends itself to lies. It’s hard to make money selling used Rolexes as what they are, but if you clean one up and make it look new, suddenly there’s a little profit in the deal. Grading diamonds is a subjective business, and the better a diamond looks to you when you’re grading it, the more money it’s worth—as long as you can convince your customer that it’s the grade you’re selling it as. Here’s an easy, effective way to do that: First lie to yourself about what grade the diamond is; then you can sincerely tell your customer “the truth” about what it’s worth.

As I would tell my salespeople: If you want to be an expert deceiver, master the art of self-deception. People will believe you when they see that you yourself are deeply convinced. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact it’s easy—we are already experts at lying to ourselves. We believe just what we want to believe. And the customer will help in this process, because she or he wants the diamond—where else can I get such a good deal on such a high-quality stone?—to be of a certain size and quality. At the same time, he or she does not want to pay the price that the actual diamond, were it what you claimed it to be, would cost. The transaction is a collaboration of lies and self-deceptions.

Here’s a quick lesson in selling. You never know when it might come in handy. When I went on the market as a Ph.D., I had six interviews and six fly-backs. That unnaturally high ratio existed not because I was smarter or more prepared than my competition. It was because I was outselling most of them.

Pretend you are selling a piece of jewelry: a useless thing, small, easily lost, that is also grossly expensive. I, your customer, wander into the store. Pretend to be polishing the showcases. Watch to see what is catching my eye. Stand back, let me prowl a bit. I will come back to a piece or two; something will draw me. You see the spark of allure. (All great selling is a form of seduction.) Now make your approach. Take a bracelet from the showcase that is near, but not too near, the piece I am interested in. Admire it; polish it with a gold cloth; comment quietly, appraisingly on it. You’re still ignoring me. Now, almost as though talking to yourself, take the piece I like from the showcase: “Now this is a piece of jewelry. I love this piece.” Suddenly you see me there. “Isn’t this a beautiful thing? The average person wouldn’t even notice this. But if you’re in the business, if you really know what to look for, a piece like this is why people wear fine jewelry. This is what a connoisseur looks for.” (If it’s a gold rope chain, a stainless-steel Rolex, or something else very common and mundane, you’ll have to finesse the line a bit, but you get the idea.)

From there it’s easy: Use the several kinds of lies Aristotle identified in Nicomachean Ethics: A good mixture of subtle flattery, understatement, humorous boastfulness, playful storytelling, and gentle irony will establish that “you’re one of us, and I’m one of you.” We are alike, we are friends, we can trust each other.

The problem is, once lying to your customer as a way of doing business becomes habitual, it reaches into other areas of your business, and then into your personal life. Soon the instrument of pleasing people becomes the goal of pleasing people. For example, who wouldn’t want to buy a high-quality one-carat diamond for just $3,000? (Such a diamond would cost $4,500 to $10,000, retail, depending on where you buy it.) But you can’t make a profit selling that diamond for $3,000—you can’t even buy one wholesale for that amount. Since the customer can’t tell the difference anyway, why not make your profit and please the customer by simply misrepresenting the merchandise? But that’s deceptive trade! There are laws against that! (There’s a body of federal law, in fact: the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Texas awards triple damages plus attorney’s fees to the successful plaintiff.) Aren’t you worried about criminal—or at least civil—consequences? And how do you look at yourself in the mirror before you go to bed at night?

During my bleakest days in business, when I felt like taking a Zen monk’s vow of silence so that not a single lie would escape my lips, I often took a long lunch and drove to a campus—Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, the University of Texas at Arlington—to see the college kids outside reading books or holding hands or hurrying to class, and to reassure myself that there was a place where life made sense, where people were happy and thinking about something other than profit, where people still believed that truth mattered and were even in pursuit of it. (OK, perhaps I was a bit naïve about academic life.)

I was in the luxury-jewelry business for nearly seven years, and though I don’t believe in the existence of a soul, exactly, I came to understand what people mean when they say you are losing your soul. The lies I told in my business life migrated. Soon I was lying to my wife. The habit of telling people what they wanted to hear became the easiest way to navigate my way through any day. They don’t call it “the cold, hard truth” without reason: Flattering falsehoods are like a big, expensive comforter—as long as the comforter is never pulled off the bed.

It seemed that I could do what I wanted without ever suffering the consequences of my actions, as long as I created the appearance that people wanted to see. It took a lot of intellectual effort. I grew skinnier. I needed more and more cocaine to keep all my lies straight. And then, one morning, I realized that I had been standing in “the executive bathroom” (reserved for my partner and myself) at the marble sink before a large, gilt Venetian mirror every morning for days, with my Glock in my mouth (in the jewelry business, everyone has a handgun). I still remember the oily taste of that barrel. Before I confronted the fact that I was trying to kill myself, I had probably put that gun in my mouth, oh, I don’t know—20, 30 times. I said, “Enough.”

I called Bob Solomon. That was in May of 2000.

I was relieved when he didn’t answer his phone. I left a message: “I’m sorry, Dr. Solomon. I’d like to come back.” Words to that effect, but at much greater length. I think the beep cut me off.

When he called back, I was too frightened to pick up. I listened to his voice-mail message. He said, “Clancy, this is not a good time to make yourself difficult to get ahold of.”

I called again. He let me off easy. (He was perhaps the most generous person I’ve ever known.) I caught him up with the past six years of my life. He told me to call him Bob, not Dr. Solomon: “We’re past that.” Then he said, “So, why do you want to come back?”

“I want to finish what I started, Bob.”

“That’s a lousy reason. Try again.”

“I need to make a living that’s not in business. I hate being a businessman, Bob.”

“So be a lawyer. Be a doctor. You’ll make more money. It’s not easy to get a job as a professor these days, Clancy.”

“It’s the one thing I really enjoyed. Philosophy was the only thing that ever truly interested me. And I have some things I want to figure out.”

“Now you’re talking. Like what? What are you thinking about?”

“Lying. Or failure. I feel like I know a lot about both of them right now.”

(I was writing a long essay about suicide, which, come to think of it, might have been more to the point at the time. But I didn’t want to scare him off.)

A beat.

“Nobody wants to read about failure. It’s too depressing. But lying is interesting. Deception? Or self-deception? Or, I’m guessing, both?”

“Exactly. Both. How they work together.”

With the help of a couple of other professors who remembered me fondly, in the fall semester of 2000, Bob Solomon brought me back to the philosophy doctoral program at Austin, and I started work on a dissertation called “Nietzsche on Deception.” One of the other graduate students—Jessica Berry, now one of philosophy’s best young Nietzsche scholars—called me “the lie guy,” and the moniker stuck.

I went to work on deception not because I wanted to learn how to lie better—I had mastered the art, as far as I was concerned—but because I wanted to cure myself of being a liar. What had started out as a morally pernicious technique had become a character-defining vice. I had to save myself. I needed to understand the knots I had tied myself into before I could begin to untangle them. (It seems like an odd solution now. At the time, I thought I was too smart for therapy.)

It’s an old idea, of course: The Delphic injunction “Know thyself” is an epistemological duty with moral muscle, intended for a therapeutic purpose. Throughout the history of philosophy, until quite recently, it was thought that the practice of philosophy should have a powerful impact on the philosopher’s life—even, ideally, on the lives of others. So I studied deception and self-deception, how they worked together, why they are so common, what harms they might do, and when, in fact, they may be both useful and necessary. Think, for example, about the misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception involved in falling in love. Who hasn’t asked, when falling in love, “But am I making all this up?” Erving Goffman would have agreed with the joke—I think we owe it to Chris Rock: “When you meet someone new, you aren’t meeting that person, you’re meeting his agent.”

I was lucky: I was awarded my Ph.D. in 2003, and I got a job. Being part of a university as a professor was very different from being a student, even a grad student. Suddenly you have power. In business—especially in retail—the customer has all the power. But students are nothing like customers, although they are starting to act more and more that way, I’ve noticed, and have eagerly adopted the motto “the customer is always right.” My fellow professors wore their power like a crown. They didn’t feel the need to pull a smile out of anyone.

I was still going from classroom to committee room trying to please everyone. I don’t think it harmed me or anyone else, particularly: It was simply unnecessary. As that sank in, I became disoriented. It reminded me of when I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 1990s, trying to hire the world’s best (and most underpaid) jewelers. No one cared about your money. The concept hadn’t yet sunk its teeth into the post-Communist soul. Similarly, in academe, no one paid much attention to the capital—charm—I was accustomed to spending in my daily life.

In fact, charm could even be a hindrance. In my first year, I was asked by a senior colleague to be the research mentor to a philosopher who had been hired around the same time. After talking about my research, my colleague added, “You are mostly who you seem to be.” This from a man who prided himself on being only who he seemed to be—as though we are all only one person!—and as a way of letting me know that he had “seen through me,” that he “was not prey to my charms.” Also, no doubt he was gently letting me know that I didn’t have to pretend to be someone other than I was.

In my old life, everyone was always trying to be more charming than everyone else—even the gruffness of certain wholesalers was (everyone understood) only pretense, the pose of authenticity, the rough exterior that hid the honest, caring heart. To be charming was among the highest virtues.

But now the chair of a science department at my university—a person whom I like very much, and who is enormously charming—and other colleagues often seem suspicious of charm in anyone. Charm is what you expect from administrators, and they, we all know, are not to be trusted. Administrators are just glorified salespeople who can’t publish (so the story goes). A charming student is a dishonest student, an apple polisher.

If I was a bit rude to people, however, if I acted superior, if I had the right mix of intellectual distance and modest moral disdain, I was suddenly a member of the club. I had to be the opposite of eager to please. Other people must be eager to please me. And if they were, I should be suspicious of them. They should be subservient without being (obviously) obsequious. They can flatter, but never as a salesperson flatters; I want flattery only from my equals. This from people who were regularly checking to see how many hot peppers they’d earned. Or who fretted—or, still worse, pretended not to fret—about their teaching evaluations.

I got Bob Solomon on the phone again.

“Bob, the professor business is even sleazier than the jewelry business. At least in the jewelry business we were honest about being fake. Plus, when I go to conferences, I’ve never seen such pretentiousness. These are the most precious people I’ve ever met.”

“Come on, Clancy. Did you really think people were going to be any better in a university?”

“Um, kind of.” Of course I did. “And it’s not that they’re not better. They’re worse.”

“Well, you may have a point there.” (Bob was always very tough on the profession of being a professor.) “Focus on the students and your writing. The rest of it is b.s.” (That was a favorite expression of Bob’s, as it is of a former colleague of his at Princeton, Harry Frankfurt.)

“With the students, I still feel like I’m selling.” (I was very worried about this.)

“You are selling. That’s part of what it is to be a good teacher.” (Bob was in the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers and had won every teaching award in the book. He also made several series of tapes for the Teaching Company.) “To be a good teacher, you have to be part stand-up comic, part door-to-door salesman, part expert, part counselor. Do what feels natural. Be yourself. Are your students liking it? Is it working for you?”

“Yes.” They liked it all right, maybe a bit too much. “And I think they’re learning.”

“Then forget about the rest of it. Just have fun. That’s the best reason for doing it.”

Stendhal wrote: “With me it is a matter of almost instinctive belief that when any … man speaks, he lies—and most especially when he writes.” I still like to tell a good story. But doesn’t everybody who loves teaching? How else are you going to liven up the classroom when students’ eyes are always turning to their iPhones or laptops?

People often ask me now if I miss the jewelry business. My brother and I rode elephants in the mountains of northern Thailand to buy rubies from the miners. I flew to Hong Kong to buy a rope of gigantic black South Sea pearls—each nearly the size of your thumb—and a precious antique jade bracelet from a dying Chinese billionairess, and flew to Paris two days later to sell it to a customer. I walked through the winding, crowded streets of Jerusalem with my diamond wholesaler, talking about the two-state solution. I stayed at the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental, or private mansions of friends. I lived shoulder-to-shoulder with celebrity clients, flew first class, had my suits custom-made, vacationed in Bali or wherever I wanted. More important—thinking of my life today—I didn’t worry about whether my daughters might have to take out student loans.

And the truth is, a lot of the time, that life was fun. The people were rich, noisy, outrageous. When I opened a new store, I felt like I’d created something special.

Would I go back? Do I miss it? No. Sometimes—I write this looking out my office window at the 100-year-old trees outside, their boughs barely lifting and falling in the autumn wind—I feel like a monk who has retreated from a world that was too much for him. “The greatest part of virtue lies in avoiding the opportunity for vice,” St. Augustine teaches us.

Maybe I’m persisting in a kind of self-deceptive naïveté that Bob wouldn’t have approved of, but you could say that my livelihood now depends on telling the truth. Back then I was arms-and-shoulders deep into life, and now at times I feel as though I am only skating on its mirrored surface. But I’d be afraid to go back. I feel peaceful now. It’s less work to be me, and to have me around. I don’t feel the need to lie. Most of the time.


Dr. Martin’s new book on deception in romantic relationships entitled “Love and Lies” is now available.


Me and My Shadow CV

Original: Chronicle of Higher Education

This fall I’m serving as the designated coach for doctoral students in my department who are on the academic job market. They’re a talented group, with impressive skills, hopes, and dreams. I’m grateful to be guiding them, as they put their best selves before search committees. However, one part of the work is not all that pleasant: I also need to ready them to face mass rejection.

Regardless of any happy outcomes that may await, they’re about to endure what may be their first experience of large-scale professional rebuff. Before, during, and after college, they sought part-time and full-time jobs and applied to graduate schools. They didn’t get hired, or they didn’t get in to some of those schools, naturally. But now they’re putting themselves in line for 40, 50, or more rejections within the space of weeks and months — on the heels of a grueling, humbling few years of dissertation writing.

I feel their pain, to some extent. Those of us on the job market a decade or more ago got our mass rejections in thin envelopes or via email in May or June, after we’d had a few closer looks and maybe even a job offer. Today’s candidates learn they’re out of the running for coveted jobs much sooner, and secondhand, by confronting another candidate’s report of an interview or an offer on the Academic Job Wiki.

That then-and-now difference got me thinking about how we teach graduate students to face academic rejection. Of course, we largely don’t. Rejection is something you’re supposed to learn by experience, and then keep entirely quiet about. Among academics, the scientists seem to handle rejection best: They list on their CVs the grants they applied for but didn’t get — as if to say, “Hey, give me credit for sticking my neck out on this unfunded proposal. You better bet I’ll try again.” Humanists — my people — hide our rejections from our CVs as skillfully as we can. Entirely, if possible.

That’s a shame. It’s important for senior scholars to communicate to those just starting out that even successful professors face considerable rejection. The sheer scope of it over the course of a career may be stunning to a newcomer. I began to think of my history of rejection as my shadow CV — the one I’d have if I’d recorded the highs and lows of my professional life, rather than its highs alone.

More of us should make public our shadow CVs. In the spirit of sharing, I include mine here in its rough outline, using my best guesses, not mathematical formulas. (I didn’t actually keep a shadow CV, despite predictable jokes I may have made in the past about wallpapering my bathroom with rejection letters.)

  • What my CV says: I have published many articles in refereed journals. What my shadow CV would say: Multiply that 3x to get the approximate number of rejections I’ve received. Earlier in my career, it was more like 4x; now it’s closer to 2x. That does not count “revise and resubmit” letters. Fortunately, the rejections do seem to get nicer, as I learn better how to present work for publication and to select journals that are a good fit for my work. I also receive more invitations to contribute, providing better odds for acceptance.
  • What my CV says: I have published books at a great university press. What my shadow CV would say: My first book was rejected six times at the proposal stage before it found a home. One of them was a report so nasty it made me question my will to write another sentence.
  • What my CV says: I’ve edited several collections of essays. What my shadow CV would say: One collection was rejected 12 times at the proposal stage. Another collection almost imploded due to conflict among contributors. A savvy press editor smoothed the ruffled feathers. That’s not all. I co-wrote a book that was under contract but was canceled by the university press’s marketing department. That book never saw the light of day. And another co-edited book, commissioned by a professional organization and some distance along, was canceled by the press and then by the organization.
  • What my CV says: I’ve received some grants and fellowships. What my shadow CV would say: Multiply that total 5x to get the number of grant rejections I’ve received — with, again, the most depressing rates of rejection coming earliest in my career. Early on, I would apply for four to eight grants or fellowships, and receive none or one. I applied for one grant eight times before receiving it. I like to think the organization finally awarded it because they were tired of hearing from me, but maybe my application actually improved.
  • What my CV says: I’ve taught at five fabulous institutions. What my shadow CV would say: This one is the worst. In the process of trying to solve a two-body problem, I was on the job market a lot. I think I’ve been rejected for nearly 400 college teaching jobs and postdoctoral fellowships. In other words, I got offered less than 2 percent of the jobs I applied for, and I’m by no means among the hard-luck cases.
  • What my CV says: I have won elections to office in my professional organization. What my shadow CV would say: I have lost about half as many elections as I’ve won. I’ll take those odds!
  • What my CV says: I have some great recommenders. What my shadow CV would say: They are great. I’ve cried in front of a few them. Academic life has been stressful. (Also, thank you for those hundreds of recommendation letters. They made everything possible.)
  • What my CV says: I have had some great students. What my shadow CV would say: They are great. A few have cried in front of me. Academic life is still stressful. (And you’re welcome for those hundreds of recommendation letters. I may still owe more to the universe than I have given.)
  • What my CV says: I have published in and been quoted in popular media. What my shadow CV would say: You can’t really count the number of times that The New York Times didn’t call you for a quote, so no formula there.

I made many failed attempts at getting my work in print, while learning how to write for new audiences and building relationships with editors. Let’s call this rejection factor 4x, on average, although many of those rejections were not of pieces that eventually saw print but those that never did.

In total, these estimates suggest I’ve received in the ballpark of 1,000 rejections over two decades. That’s 50 a year, or about one a week. People in sales or creative writing may scoff at those numbers, but most of my rejections came in the first 10 years of my academic career, when I was searching intensely for a tenure-track job. Very few came during the summer, when academic-response rates slow to a crawl. I remember months when every envelope and every other email seemed to hold a blow to the ego. My experience was not unusual. Unfortunately, a multiyear job search is, if anything, more common now for would-be academics than when I was on the market.

Most of us get better at handling rejection, although personally, it can still knock the wind out of me. Usually in those moments, I recall something a graduate-school professor once said after I railed at, and — much to my embarrassment — shed a few tears over a difficult rejection: “Go ahead,” he said. “Let it make you angry. Then use your anger to make yourself work harder.”

It sounds so simple. Whether any single rejection is fair or unfair doesn’t ultimately matter. What matters is what you do next. You could let rejection crush you. Or you could let it motivate you to respond in creative, harder-working, smarter-working ways. (I’m convinced, though, that rejection is particularly tough to take in academe because so much of our work is mind work, closely tied to our own identities and sense of self-worth.)

A CV is a life story in which just the good things are recorded, yet sometimes I look at it and see there what others cannot: the places I haven’t been, the journals where my work wasn’t accepted, the times a project wasn’t funded, the ways my ideas were judged inadequate. I’ve started to imagine my CV as a record of both highlight-reel wins and between-the-lines losses. If you’re lucky, you will, like me, also one day come to recognize the places where the losses — as painful as they were at the time — led to unexpectedly positive things. Slammed doors, it turns out, may later become opened ones.

When I was meeting with my department’s academic-job seekers recently, one of them asked me about the last time I was rejected.

“My last rejection was one week ago,” I admitted to them, feeling uncomfortably like someone introducing myself at an AA meeting. “I got two rejections, in fact. One was really, really hard to accept, and, I think, wrong. But I’ll take it for what it’s worth and try again.”

Increasingly, I see rejection as a necessary part of every stage of an academic career. I remind myself that the fact that I’m still facing rejection is evidence that I’m still in the game at a level where I should be playing. I’m continuing to hone my skills and strive for better opportunities — continuing to build both my CV and my shadow CV. Each version is necessary as we seek to advance our research, teaching, and service, the activities to which some of us — and I wish there were many more of us — have the good fortune to devote our professional lives.

@AcademicsSay: The Story Behind a Social Media Experiment

Author: Nathan Hall
Original: Chronicle of Higher Education

I am not an intellectual, leading expert, or public scholar. I am a rank-and-file academic with the job of balancing respectable research with acceptable teaching evaluations and sitting on enough committees to not be asked to sit on more committees. And in my spare time, I run what is arguably one of the most influential academic accounts on social media: Shit Academics Say.

Since starting the account in September of 2013, it has grown to over 122,000 followers, gaining 250 to 300 new followers daily and ranking in the top 0.1 percent across social media influence metrics such as Klout, Kred, and Followerwonk. To unpack this a bit, tweets sent from my phone while recalibrating dopamine levels on the treadmill, or waiting outside my 3-year-old’s ballet class, are showing up in about 10 million Twitter streams and generating 200,000 to 300,000 profile visits a month, effectively making @AcademicsSay a bigger “social authority” on Twitter than nearly all colleges and academic publications. Not weird at all.

Although this might sound impressive, the popularity of the account is perhaps not surprising. First, academics use Twitter mainly for distraction, with tweets providing humorous details of academic content typically gaining the most exposure. Second, it is immediately apparent to new Twitter users that parody accounts like @kimkierkegaardashian, @NoToFeminism, or @SwiftOnSecurity tend to be more popular than traditional outlets — an observation that sparked an idea for how to personally connect with other academics in a not-boring way and on a scale large enough to have my procrastination count as research.

Like many academics, I have never been completely comfortable with the peculiarities, predilections, or pretentions of our profession, and have over time found myself both ashamed and amused while telling students to “please have a seat while I sit three feet away and finish this non-urgent email for the next five minutes”, or telling myself “I should be writing” when doing anything remotely enjoyable. And since starting this profession six years ago, I have also been regularly confused and frustrated by the cognitive dissonance I regularly encountered as part of trying to stay productive, employable, and, most important, fundable.

As a grad student, I had often heard that a retirement boom was coming, that course evaluations should not be believed until the third time around, and that all resubmitted manuscripts and grant applications are eventually accepted. However, I personally found these sentiments to be less than comforting after my own failed job applications (90-plus over two years), unsuccessful grant applications (15 since 2000), soul-crushing course evaluations (“He should have applied some of the motivational principles he teaches about to his own teaching.” — Winter 2015, paraphrased), and unjustified manuscript rejections (“I am a jealous and generally unhappy person.” — Reviewer 2, paraphrased).

And very much unlike a detached analysis of affect in which I was well-trained, I increasingly found myself dealing with unexpected combinations of emotion such as boredom/anger while grading, guilt/envy while reviewing a manuscript I should have written, or relief/shame after an internal grant deadline was extended. As an experienced overthinker, I was also able to convince myself that these wonderfully nuanced internal experiences were somehow unique to my beautiful mind. Whether it was self-disappointment over writing guilt on date night, resentment while teaching night classes instead of reading bedtime stories to my kids, or using humor to avoid feeling like a fraud while teaching content learned the day before or writing papers few would ever read, well-worn constructs like work-life balance and impostor syndrome didn’t seem to fit.

But I shouldn’t complain. I get paid to think about thinking about thinking, and start my first sabbatical this summer to ostensibly gain a “fresh perspective on an old problem” (aka: binge-watching Entourage). However, after a difficult year prepping my seventh new course in four years, accepting my sixth concurrent graduate student, and writing over 50,000 words to win at least one of three federal grants, I was burned out. I struggled to enjoy teaching, had little interest in writing, and, most heart-breaking of all, was no longer impressed by that special brand of meta-angst that can only come from grappling with motivational issues as a motivation researcher.

So why a Twitter account.

By the fall of 2013, I had done everything needed for tenure and was unusually motivated to do something that did not need a good reason. Something just for me, and not my CV. Although I had long disliked Twitter for its propensity for oversharing and groupthink, growing an anonymous parody account seemed like a not-boring way to poke fun at the profession that made my head hurt, maybe take myself a bit less seriously, and test an alternative hypothesis that I was not alone in being confounded by the curiosities and psychological challenges of an academic career.

What I quickly learned from Twitter was that my personal academic experiences were not at all unique, and more importantly, that it could be worse. Much worse. I was not a minimum-wage adjunct struggling to manage 12 courses a year and being fired at the end of each term. Nor was I a female, LGBTQ, or racial-minority scholar facing pretenure demands compounded by institutionalized roadblocks, or at risk of having my tenure revoked or position terminated by politicians or university donors. I was (and still am) a middle-to-upper-class white male who, although had trained for years for a job that perhaps wasn’t as intrinsically rewarding as expected, had job security, grant funding, and enough free time to Google “privilege guilt.”

So I soon started to take Twitter more seriously, and in addition to attempts at humor during my commute or while debating between an evening shift and Netflix, took a page from academic Twitter pioneers like Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) and began to experiment with academic community building. To my surprise, followers whom I had assumed were there just for the jokes seemed to very much appreciate referrals to informative hashtags, resource accounts, or professional-development blogs (e.g., #ScholarSunday, #GetYourManuscriptOut, @SUWTues, @AcademicKindes), with single tweets crashing websites and prompting unsolicited social network analyses or blog analytics.

More unexpectedly, this account also provided me an enviable VIP pass to connect with academics over some of the most fun, irreverent, and NSFW academic hashtags in recent years. Ranging from cathartic tweets about manuscript rejections (#SixWordPeerReview) and awkward attempts at romance (#AcademicValentines) to a torrent of sarcastic humor in response to gender bias (#DistractinglySexy), it’s hard to describe the giddy grade-school excitement of jumping into a rapid-fire fray of remarkably creative, clever, and brutally honest tweets from academics around the world ­— a uniquely engaging and not-often-enough experience unlike anything else in academia. And although I did occasionally attempt my own super-creative hashtags (e.g., #SixWordPaperTitle, #YoManuscript), I eventually settled on a better use for the account.

Over the past six months, @AcademicsSay has allowed me to recruit over 6,800 faculty and graduate students from over 60 countries to participate in three online studies on topics ranging from procrastination and impostor syndrome to work-life balance and burnout, resulting in one of the most comprehensive and international investigations of psychological well-being in academia to date. So beyond the account making my academic life maybe a bit less boring, perhaps the most important part of this experience for me has been the sobering realization of how deeply and widely these psychological challenges resonate with other academics and that I am in a unique position do something about it.

By January of 2014, I had reached 10,000 followers simply by joking about these issues, and was curious about how effective @AcademicsSay could be for conducting actual research. So I dusted off a failed grant proposal from 2011, submitted an ethics application, and started to apply “growth hacking” strategies to maximize account reach (e.g., adding images, pre-scheduling tweets, using Twitter lists). I began to pay attention to follower and tweet analytics, curate content for international exposure and cross-disciplinary appeal, and even created a graduate course on the topic as well as a parallel Facebook page that now reaches up to 1.5 million followers a week.

Basically, I have over the past 18 months been telling jokes on the internet and teaching myself about social media to give myself a meaningful shot at turning my anonymous online procrastination into an actual research program. Again, not weird at all.

So there you go. What was started as a private social experiment borne out of confusion and frustration quickly turned into something more: a one-of-a-kind experience of connecting with a previously unknown academic community through humor, an unexpected education in social media and higher-education issues, and an obligation to expand my research to address a very real need for longitudinal, large-scale studies on self-regulation and well-being in academia.

If you are a professor or graduate student and wish to participate in our study, please visit If you follow at @AcademicsSay on Twitter or Facebook, thank you once again for your support.

And if you’re finding it increasingly difficult to convince yourself that pursuing an academic career was a not a terrible mistake, that your work impacts anything other than your CV, or that “data” is plural yet “agenda” is somehow not, you are not alone. I’m not sure if it gets better, but I’ll certainly look into it and get back to you 😉