Higher Ed Hot Takes
• Issue #25

Embrace the Ambiguity

Triangle patterns of pink and blue arranged in an abstract manner.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the ambiguity

In a previous career, working in nonprofit arts organizations, I used to bristle any time anyone suggested that nonprofits (or government, for that matter) would be more successful, financially stable, and more impactful if someone in charge would just run things like a business.

The idea is that business management is pretty straightforward. You make decisions based on a combination of efficacy and profit versus loss. If you adopt this worldview lens, you can get quite good at goal attainment and forecasting. Heck, once you’re done with nonprofits and then the government, you can run your life and your family as mini businesses.

There are a lot of ways this opening can splinter off topic-wise:

I’m not going to dive into those, though; this is a hot-take newsletter. So, we need to get a little deeper and a little spicier.

“[Fill in the blank] should be run like a business” is an existential plea for simplicity in a complex and ambiguous world. It’s reduction until you achieve coherency and a sense of control. It’s also a fantasy. Businesses aren’t that simple, either. But I digress.

I don’t know all of you, and I certainly don’t know your hearts and minds intimately. But, I suspect you may have just given yourself a thumbs up, thinking, “I hear this business mantra too, and I’ve never uttered anything like it before.” And maybe you are right. But “run it like a business” is only one version of this existential complexity dread surfacing. And there are others.

Here are some others:

  • Doing work that is not yours because you understand how to do it (e.g., writing, copyediting, developing promotional materials)
  • Hoarding work instead of delegating.
  • Micromanaging others’ work because, again, their work is straightforward.
  • Insisting on perfection. Maximizing instead of satisficing.
  • Experiencing reactivity and intense emotions even in relatively low-stakes conversations.
  • Feeling exhausted, frustrated, and like nothing gets accomplished because you’re in too many meetings.
  • Wanting fewer voices weighing in.
  • Wanting fewer committees, less governance, and faster decision-making.
  • Suffering in your own self-criticism because you feel like you’re procrastinating too much.
  • Giving vague feedback or unclear directives.

I bet you can see yourself in at least one of these. And it’s because our work defies simple rules and obvious steps forward. Our work is political and philosophical.

You see, as we advance in our careers and hone our expertise, the work gets cloudier, and the decision-making gets MORE social. A higher percentage of our work involves finding the narrative threads and metaphors that explain our work and motivate us. All of our meetings require patience, negotiation, and sense-making.

Think back to that whole 10,000 hours of deliberate practice leads to expertise - a notion developed by Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. The 10,000 hours model represents an average (the original study examined professional violin players) and requires quick and accurate feedback loops, competent mentors, and skills that lend themselves well to chunking and practice sequencing.

Now think of your work. As you grow in your career, less and less of your work gives you opportunities for deliberate practice. For one, your feedback is often missing, hard to interpret, temporally distant from the actions you took, or mixed with too many other variables. Even when your work is excellent, you might face headwinds in visibility, or it might take some self-advocacy and organizational convincing that the effects are due to your efforts. Additionally, what exactly is yours? Each section required the actions and thoughts of many other people and tools.

I guess what I am trying to say is that our work is hard, not due to hours or effort, but due to the processes of social thinking. The advantages in our work actually come from our acceptance of the discomfort that comes from this collective sense-making.

Every step towards simplicity is actually a sacrifice. We’re sacrificing data and insights from other people. We’re sacrificing inclusivity, creativity, and autonomy. We’re trading simplicity for the hard-won cohesion that comes from the upfront investment in sense-making in our community.

The process of learning, teaching, and creating communities for populations of people who join us for a few years and leave to make more significant contributions to our workforce and world - this is complicated stuff. Embracing the ambiguity of higher education institutional life will help you manage your own stress and be a more effective and collaborative colleague. The better you get at metabolizing the social requirements of collective learning, the patience of negotiating, and the creative application of metaphor, the better you’re going to feel overall.

- Kristin Van Dorn

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Listen to Appendix B

Cover image for episode 5 of Appendix B, a podcast from Bravery Media. The episode is called "higher ed's differentiation problem."

Are Higher Ed institutions trying to differentiate themselves in the WRONG areas? Find out in this 10-minute conversation.

- Carl Gratiot