In 2001, I was an assistant professor starting out at Carnegie Mellon, listening to advice from a senior faculty member. I had a long way to go, and tenure frankly seemed like a distant and unattainable goal to me. I was simply grateful to have landed at Carnegie Mellon, but I really didn’t know if I would last. I was listening to a panel from a group of senior faculty when one of them casually uttered something that just jumped out at me.
“If you want something, act like you have it.”
You see, I had already received a ton of formulaic advice about making tenure — get X publications, graduate Y Ph.D. students, get Z funded grants. Good old-fashioned, practical, down-to-earth, measurable, actionable, formulaic advice.
But, these words — this advice — was strikingly different. This advice was about attitude. The attitude that I needed to make tenure. And something deep inside me stirred and responded to these words.
To make tenure, I needed to believe I had tenure.
I needed to believe that I was here to stay at Carnegie Mellon.
I needed to believe that I belonged at Carnegie Mellon.
I needed to believe that tenure was such a given for me that, heck, I might as well act like I had it.
This was the best career advice I ever got.
Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash
It gave me the swagger that I needed. It gave me the swagger that I needed to go into faculty meetings and sit right next to senior faculty whose careers I had followed in awe as a grad student. It gave me the swagger that I needed to walk into a classroom of 120 of the most intelligent (read: intimidating) engineering students to teach them about embedded systems. It gave me the swagger that I needed to write grant proposals to funding agencies that I had no business in reaching out to. It gave me the swagger to pull together a football-engineering research group without ever having played a game of football. It gave me the swagger to do a project (that ultimately became YinzCam) with a professional hockey team without having played a game of hockey. And, it gave me the swagger to do all of these things while being totally and unashamedly untenured.
I walked into that senior-faculty panel that day as a timid, untenured, diffident faculty member, but I walked out with the swagger of a tenured faculty member.
I wanted tenure, so I was going to act like I had it. From that day on.
So, Nicky, someday, when you really, really, really want something, just act like you have it.
It worked for your Mom.
Mom (tenured at Carnegie Mellon since 2012)
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