Rock Star in a Small Pond: Yes, I mixed my Metaphors

An eminent social philosopher of the “Guns and Roses” School named Slash once observed, “Being a rock star is the intersection of who you are and who you want to be”. If only his level of introspection had rubbed off on Axl…but that’s an issue for a later post dedicated to the rise and fall of 80’s super-groups.
I want to discuss the phenomena of being a big fish in a small pond. I’ve generally felt a little more like plankton, but as a Latina from the South Bronx who attended prep school in Massachusetts, Vassar College, and graduate school in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, California, I always really been more of a fish out of water. See how I did that. Another maritime metaphor. I crack myself up.
A function of being an “other” in most social environments is an eye-opening experience. In one sense, it makes you a “cultural diplomat” i.e. you learn to juggle multiple sets of social norms simultaneously, and one begins to be able to translate between the environments. Some might say it makes me jaded. It’s hard to take any set of cultural norms seriously once you’ve seen the wide range of variations, even with our own society, let alone between, for example, your average Nuyorican, typical Midwestern farmer, or California surfer dude, let alone cultures that are ostensibly even more remote. Maybe there really is a use for those unemployable anthropologists. With this in mind, I ventured into the wilds of academia and determined to get my doctorate in psychology, to live among the tribe of psychologists, learn their language and ways, and understand their culture. In short, I went to grad school. And there, I discovered a phenomena I did not expect, which in the spirit of mixing as many metaphors as possible and in acknowledge of the underappreciated wisdom of Slash (e.g. you can lead a horse to water, but if you beat a dead horse, you can’t make him drink), I like to call it the phenomena of “being a rock star in a small pond”.
Academia is an odd place. Not, “gee, that’s different”, sort of odd. We’re talking “Alice in Wonderland” unreality. Professors, particularly at prestigious universities, study minutiae. For those without a dictionary (who am I kidding, you’re using Google, aren’t you?), by minutiae I mean tiny little subjects that nobody cares about. They make entire careers of these tiny subjects. I’m not talking about small theoretical areas of psychology. I’m talking about studying the emotional expressions of fishes, and whether humans can recognize them. Articles published in earnest seriousness in the revered Journal of Social and Personality Psychology could just as easily be published in the comic Journal of Irreproducible results. That’s how unimportant most academic research actually is. This is not to say that important and useful psychological research does not emerge from academia, it’s just the exception rather than the rule. And whether there is ultimately a use for any particular bit of academic research is not particularly relevant to the phenomena I want to discuss.
Publishing is the holy grail of academia. The more you publish, the more you are cited by others, and the more demand there is for your presence at academic conferences, which are a strange phenomenon unto themselves. Important positions and highly respected universities are dependent on publication of learned articles in sober journals. This leads to certain professors (it doesn’t hurt if they are young and good looking, which tells you a little bit about how this is related to our fascination with celebrity) regarding themselves and being regarded by others as “rock stars”. If I spent every spare moment studying Sumerian pot shards for 20 years, and was regarded as the most published, quoted, and revered Sumerian pot shard expert, you can bet I would be treated like a queen at the annual American Association for Study of Sumerian Pot Shards Conference. Of course there would only be two other people there, but I would be the most important one. I would expect the other two to applaud my entry into the room, request my autograph, and follow me around like groupies, because after all, I am the leading expert in Sumerian pot shards.
This is exactly what happens in academia. Researchers and graduate students study increasingly rarified realms, on smaller and smaller populations, and come to conclusions with very little real world impact, or frankly for which nobody outside the few people actually interested (see Sumerian pot shards example) are even aware. And this sometimes confers the “rock star” status on them, given that a critical mass of enough earnest graduate students and competing professors are actually interested in the same somewhat esoteric subject.
Having discerned this critical element of academic psychology, I decided to pursue applied psychology in the community, working directly to improve society. My move into the non-profit world was a vote of no confidence in academia – the road to prestige in academia was microscopic focus, and I wanted to think bigger, have more of an impact, and actually help people.
Ah, good intentions never go unpunished. What I discovered was that the non-profit world, no matter what segment of it you are in, has its own set of rock stars. The people who are waiting for applause every time they enter a room, that expect everyone to go silent when they speak, and assume that if they say something it will simply be accepted as true. They are simply a different species of small fish in a different pond. John Ruskin, a Victorian English art critic once warned, “A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel”. Or as we would say in the South Bronx, “You ain’t all that”. While we all like to think of ourselves as rock stars in our own minds (I certainly like to imagine running into a conference, taking the stage and screaming “Hello, New York!” like Axl). There is a big difference between healthy self-concept and a desire for notoriety, even in a small pond, and when you start expecting others to behave like you’re Queen of the Pond.
P.S. Please dont give me the Marie Antoinette treatment for my academia rant. I still love books and research. I just don’t need the adulation for loving those things!

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