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  • Melissa Forbes

the essentialist academic—a contradiction in terms?


Is it possible as an academic to forge a clear pathway through your career?

As an academic—and particularly as a music academic—I am aware that I occupy an extremely privileged place in society. Academic roles aren't easy to come by in this day and age, to be sure. I have an added sense of that privilege because I've worked in another field in both the private and public sectors, so I can compare my academic role with those experiences and academia comes up trumps. I know I'm onto a good thing with academia—there is so much freedom to shape the role in accordance with one's own interests. I feel very, very lucky to be a full-time tenured academic in music.


For me the greatest challenge as an academic is the fact that academic roles bring with them the tyranny of choice—LOTS of choice. My primary challenge has been managing (or not) the many competing demands on time. I've navigated this largely by saying yes to almost everything that has come my way, rather than realising that choice means you get to choose! In Australia, academics have a portfolio which consists of teaching and learning, research, and service to the university and the profession. Doing any one of these truly to the best of one's ability is, in my view, a full-time job in itself. Doing all of them to the best of one's ability is, well, very difficult. Add to that mix my role as a (supposedly) practising musician and, well, you see the dilemma—how to choose from the myriad options of academic activities? Within the core areas of teaching, research and service, academics can bring their own perspective, be creative and take risks. Having choices is wonderful, but not if you lack the ability to be strategic when choosing. No strategy means that you end up with a blanc mange of an academic portfolio with no real focus.


Enter Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less by Greg McKeown. I have been on a quest to find advice on how to address the issue of feeling like my attention and time were being shattered into a thousand shards. I have read books on overwhelm, time management, productivity, the nature of work and books about being an academic (I particularly liked Inger Mewburn's How to be an academic) but McKeown's Essentialism is nail on head stuff. McKeown's central thesis is that to fulfil our best purpose in work and in life, we must be absolutely clear on what's most important to us. Many of us are caught up in doing too many things, trying to be all things to all people and not succeeding with any of it.


Despite being written with a corporate bent, everything McKeown writes is manna from heaven for academics who are struggling to manage the competing portfolios within the role. McKeown distinguishes between essentialists and non-essentialists. Non-essentialists think they can do it all. They have trouble saying no. They won't make trade offs. Non-essentialists have completely lost sight of the big picture—they have no idea why they are doing what they're doing. They just do it because they think that is the way of the world. Non-essentialism is the way of the world, and McKeown urges readers to challenge that.


Essentialists say no more than they say yes. They focus on the one thing which brings together what inspires them, their strongest skills and what the world needs. They provide just the right thing at just the right time. They are completely and utterly focused on achieving their essential intent i.e. the one thing they are truly excellent at, which inspires them, and is measurable and concrete. McKeown gives example after example of successful essentialists in the book, ranging from designers to CEO's to entrepreneurs. I resemble none of them, but it seems to me that the principles of essentialism are perfect for application within an academic context.


Friends, here is my confession—as an academic, I am the essence of the non-essentialist! I have spent my entire academic career thinking that to succeed I must do it all—say yes to every request, be responsible for student recruitment, be hyper-available to staff and students (I am getting better at this, though), research and publish, perform (important in the creative and performing arts disciplines), supervise HDR students, manage people, be active in the community...that's just off the top of my head. I have completely lost sight of what my essential intent is. Whilst I am (pretty) sure my essential intent lies within academia, who am I as an academic? as a researcher? as a teacher? Is there a unifying principle which can bring this all together?


I'm a long way from answering these questions, but at least now I'm asking them. I have been lucky enough just this week to attend two fantastic presentations about researcher identity (many thanks to Assoc Prof Michael Stephens from San Jose University and Emeritus Professor Jane Kenway from Monash University for their insight and inspiration). Key take-aways were:

  • jump into the academic space and just get started—don't wait to be perfect (Michael)

  • sharing a little bit of yourself goes a long way to establishing connections on a professional academic profile (Michael)

  • challenge yourself to not only be a compliant researcher—be formidable! Encourage uncomfortable thought in the all too comfortable space of the university (Jane)

  • lastly and central to essentialism, the temptation for early career researchers is to keep expanding our reading and go down knowledge rabbit holes. Read in order to narrow your focus and discover your particular focus and contribution to the field (Jane)

In relation to developing your unique learning and teaching profile, I can highly recommend the USQ Salon Series talk by Prof Shelley Kinash.


The challenge for academics is to bring together the various portfolios of the role under one essential intent. What is your essential intent or the unifying principle which draws together your work in research, teaching and learning and service? What is the one idea which inspires you as a researcher and teacher that the world needs to know more about?


As for me, I have some thoughts...watch this space!