Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Good and Bad of One Dimensional Status

This New Yorker piece about Amy Bishop - the woman who shot faculty members in her department when she was denied tenure - has been getting some reaction from within academia. At its core this is the story of a woman with a personality disorder who clearly needed status - as we all do - but in her case the reaction to its denial was repeatedly pathological. There's an increasing sense from multiple disciplines that multiple overlapping status hierarchies result in better quality of life for many of us, but this fragmentation also provides an opportunity for gaming the whole system; perhaps this latter outcome is still a net positive.

In Bishop's case, she defined her status entirely within one hierarchy - academia. Just about everyone who reads the piece will be angry at her for one reason or another, and in my case it was her narrowness in defining her worth this way. If you're that fragile, make sure you're not invested in a single hierarchy that can be taken away from you!

I've been having the reverse experience Bishop did, resulting in a different problem. As a nontraditional student in medical school with a successful previous career, it's incredibly de-stressing to know that I had a great life before medicine and if something goes wrong and I don't finish the MD, I'll be fine. I hesitate to say that out loud around my superiors because they're used to being the sole dispensers of status, and probably aren't pleased to find someone who is less able to be motivated by implicit threats therein. At the same time, it's demotivating - the younger students' identities are entirely wrapped up in medicine and can't imagine a life without a future MD. When you're burning the midnight oil studying, I imagine it's easier to get through another chapter of nephrology that way.

As a general rule in life, it's a good idea to stay out of zero sum games, and status is one of the most common zero sum games. If you have to play it, play in multiple leagues simultaneously.

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