That makes the idea of the academic ego, and the potential need for one, even more difficult for me to process. I struggle with the belief that building an academic ego will take me further away from my personal happiness and the fear that not developing one will hinder my career prospects. Reputation is everything in academics - it is what opens the door to opportunities - and reputation is built through the way you are viewed by your peers.
What is the connection between reputation and ego?
"From a Buddhist point of view, the ego is something made up by the mind. It’s the sense of self — a flash of “I” or “me” that we believe in and cling to. It’s the basis of our feeling of self-importance. It’s a story, a myth of self that we keep telling ourselves." (elephant journal)
In essence, our academic ego is a story that we tell others about ourselves and that they, in turn, repeat back to us; elaborating on it over time. Certainly we can put ourselves out there as the true individuals we are, but will that elicit the "respect" needed to build a reputation? Teresa Amibile conducted some research that indicates people assign qualities of intelligence, competence, and intellectual prowess to those who use a negative tone when critiquing the word of others. Certainly this leads them to be viewed as less favorable individuals, but the same attitude or tone has the power to elevate their reputation as experts in their field.
We have all seen that professor at a conference who tears apart a student's (or colleague's) work to showcase their own, perhaps more thorough, knowledge of the material. It's almost a form of peacocking where they attempt to put themselves at the center of attention. Sure, we all privately comment about how rude or cruel they were, but there is evidence indicating we may assign more power to the individual who conducts themselves in this manner. When no one calls them out on this this type of behavior, it becomes normalized, begins to appear in other venues, and eventually is transmitted to students as part of the package of academia.
Are they doing it on purpose? Likely not. It's a learned behavior. If we want attention, we become highly aware of the language we use. If we want to make a strong statement about who we are or what we believe, we tend to use stronger words. A desire to avoid confrontation, especially publicly, prevents people from calling others out on their use of aggressive (or micro-aggressive) actions. This lack of action serves as a reinforcement.
Are all academics like this? Of course not. Many have found a way to circumnavigate this profession and interact with others in a positive manner. Yet - it would be difficult for any of them to claim that they have no academic ego. It is a part of this profession. We are encouraged to self-promote. "Show them who you are." "Put your best foot forward." "Tell them why you are the ideal candidate." We must find a way to make ourselves stand out for that job opening, that grant application, that committee. We must be our own advocates. All wonderful and necessary advice for the culture in which we exist.
I'm sure for many people the balance comes easily. It is perfectly reasonable to take pride in our accomplishments and to have confidence in our abilities. For others, such as myself, the struggle can be very real. I love the feelings that come with success, with making progress, with receiving recognition. Yet there remains this conscious concern about my personal commitment to not becoming attached to the desire to repeatedly experience those emotions. Until I can find a way to merge who I am as an individual with who I am as a professional, I am choosing to side-step the issue of developing my academic ego.