How often do you promote yourself to obscurity?

Today is August 30 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you promote yourself to obscurity?” In a February 18, 2020 interview Dwell Media CEO Zach Klein reflected upon a crucial piece of advice that has pushed him to cultivate community and collaboration wherever he goes. Dwell Media is an inspiration and collaborative platform for architects, designers, and enthusiasts to share and discover inspiring design.

According to Klein:

“Shortly after finishing college I received some advice from a peer further along in her career that I have never stopped thinking about: ‘Be careful not to promote yourself to obscurity.’ She was referring to the cycle in which you get good at doing something you love and then start trading up, exchanging the thing you love for a title/salary combo that makes you feel safe—because that’s success, right? Some people manage to have it both ways, but perhaps more often when you make this trade you get further and further from the thing you love: you entrench yourself inside the experience you already have, you stop taking risks, you stop collaborating and you stop learning, and you become obscure.”

Today’s reflection challenges us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves another question “what is it that we truly love?” If you are unsure, that is fine. You can use today’s question as a reminder to explore various options and recognize that it is okay for you to be unsure. It is not okay, however, to ignore the work required to identify what it is you love doing.

If you have reflected upon today’s question and realized perhaps you have, or have started to, ‘promote yourself to obscurity’ that is good to know. Such awareness allows you to identify that which you love and then have an opportunity to ask yourself “how far removed am I?”

Higher education provides an ideal platform for today’s reflection. When faculty leave their full-time teaching responsibilities behind to go into administration it is often known, sarcastically by the full-time faculty, as going to the ‘dark side.’ The dark side reference stems from the Star Wars film series where the dark side represents evil and the light side, or the force, represents all that is good. In short, the faculty represent good and the administration symbolizes evil.

In an August 2020 article Bradley Fuster, Vice President for Academic Affairs, a former member of the force (good) who now has sided with the dark side, discussed his transition, and wrote:

“Should one decide to pursue a full-time higher education leadership position, it often means abandoning, or severely reducing, the relationship with the academic discipline. For many people, it may feel like going through a divorce from a long-standing, on-again/off-again or love-hate relationship. After promotion to full professor, I took a look around and realized that many of my professional orchestra musician colleagues -- as well as my faculty colleagues, many of whom had arguably reached the zenith of their professional careers -- were miserable for one reason or another. Transitioning to administration while I was still passionate about teaching, research and service was probably the most ideal moment for me. The transition from faculty to administration requires you to reframe your sense of professional accomplishment and understand that you are fueling student success from a different vantage point. Instead of flying the airplane, you are designing new airplanes, repairing broken airplanes, controlling air traffic, ensuring safety, building new airports and serving the general welfare of all.”

Fuster understood that teaching and student success were the things, in Klein’s words ‘that he was good at.’ Unlike many people who transition over to the ‘dark side’ of administration, Fuster never promoted himself to obscurity because he gave himself permission to grow into an administrator that ‘fueled teaching and student success from a different vantage point.’ Instead of being the pilot (professor) Fuster’s role as an administrator provided him opportunities to ‘design new airplanes, control air traffic, and build new airports.’ Fuster did indeed trade up for a higher-level position but his fuel for such a trajectory remained his passion for teaching and student success.

If you promote yourself to obscurity you risk trading your passion for glory. As the lyrics go in the 1982 song “Eye of the Tiger” by the American rock band Survivor for the film Rocky III:

“So many times it happens too fast

You trade your passion for glory

Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past

You must fight just to keep them alive”

The song was written by Survivor guitarist Frankie Sullivan and keyboardist Jim Peterik, and it was recorded at the request of Rocky III star, writer, and director Sylvester Stallone, after Queen denied him permission to use "Another One Bites the Dust,” the song Stallone intended as the Rocky III theme. As with most navigate the chaos stories, here is a story within a story.

If Queen permitted Stallone to use “Another One Bites the Dust” Survivor would not have had an opportunity to write an "Eye of the Tiger." When one door closed for Stallone, he opened another. And in so doing he reminded us to hold on to the dreams of our past and not trade your passion for glory.