Standing on Top of the Wrong Wall!

[We’re pleased to welcome authors, A. R. Elangovan of the University of Victoria British Columbia and Andrew J. Hoffman of the University of Michigan. They recently published an article in the Journal of Management Inquiry entitled “The Pursuit of Success in Academia: Plato’s Ghost Asks “What then?” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the backstory and motivation for this research:]


What happens if you spend the better part of your working life fighting to climb the career ladder, succeed with hard work and sacrifice to get to the top, and then discover you have scaled the wrong wall? This was the question that we wrestled with during a chance meeting in February 2017. We were meeting for the first time but quickly recognized during the course of our discussion that we were kindred spirits in how we imagined the conceptualization and enactment of scholarly identities and purpose, and the role of academia in modern society. Our shared sensibilities were tinged with a sense of urgency to elevate this topic towards a broader and more critical debate, especially in light of the political, social and economic shifts that are radically altering the landscape of our professional and personal lives.

Central to our thinking was an unease that academia has drifted away from its primary role as the intellectual conscience of society – a place where we can gather with curiosity and passion to search skillfully for answers to questions that will point us towards better and more enlightened ways of living. We were troubled by what we had experienced as business school professors in how “success” for an academic has been so narrowly construed that it was pushing doctoral students and junior faculty towards a sterile, transactional, “careerist” interpretation of academic life. To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, we felt we were running the risk of creating a generation of academics who have “all the completeness of a limited scholar.” It was an interpretation that was in direct contrast to our belief that being an academic should be imagined and enacted as a calling, one where our creative, curious and skilled search for answers meets the pressing needs of society, i.e., that we see ourselves as actors with a responsibility to help improve the world we live in. We were deeply worried that the way business schools have defined and pursued “success” in recent decades was a self-inflicted wound that only served to undermine our contributions in and to society just as the very value of academia as an institution is being questioned, disparaged, and increasingly dismissed as irrelevant.

We felt compelled to break step with the business-as-usual approach to our work and raise the alarm about this impoverished interpretation of success that permeates our academic trajectories. We were moved and inspired by the message in the poem “What then?” by W.B. Yeats that highlights the life journey of an ambitious young man who does everything “right” as per the societal norms and mores of his time, but ends up feeling unfulfilled and increasingly unsure even as his successes add up. Our paper is wrapped around the four stanzas in the poem and equates them to the four stages of academic life. Our hope is that our call to question, challenge and critique the way we currently define success in academia would ignite a debate within business schools about our identities, responsibilities and opportunities as management scholars.

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Work Worth Doing

Thomas A. Conklin, Gannon University, published “Work Worth Doing: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience of Discovering and Following One’s Calling” on September 13th, 2011 in the Journal of Management Inquiry’s OnlineFirst section. Dr. Conklin kindly provided the following responses to his article.

Who is the target audience for this article?

This article is particularly well suited to academics and teachers who may be available to the ideas it contains. These audiences are often in contact with younger adults and students and the paper is quite relevant for those groups as they try to feel their way into their future. That notwithstanding, it is also very relevant for anyone who is concerned with the meaning of her work or someone who may be at a crossroads in their career.

What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

Honestly, I believe my own curiosity and challenge to find my work has led me to this topic. The paper grew from my dissertation which was discovered through the pursuit of a different but related question. The original intent of my dissertation was to inquire into those who serve the natural environment in some way and to discover/understand how they maintained their momentum given the rampant environmental degradation we often see around us. What I discovered was a cadre of individuals across multiple organizations who were leading with their passion. I was curious about that and just followed what seemed like a natural path.

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

Yes. I was particularly surprised by some of the themes that emerged from their stories. Wholeness/Integration and The Urgent Imperative surprised me but were such a treasure to discover. As a self-confessed/professed nature freak these themes gave me hope for the participants and what they do. They also affirmed in me the hope that we all must have for those who seek the untrodden path in service to something beyond themselves. It is a high calling and a worthy one indeed.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

I have continued to pursue phenomenology as a process for understanding human experience. This interest has evolved into other writing projects and plans for topics that would be interesting. Currently I am working on a paper that focuses on the experience of the appreciative inquiry practitioner. The heart of the paper has to do with who these folks are becoming as a result of their work. I also find that phenomenology and the natural world are popular topics that are meaningful to discuss with students and clients. It seems that others are curious about these things and these containers are meaningful areas for significant conversations and inquiry into their lives.

How does this study fit into your body of work/line of research?

This work unites two streams of interest I have: phenomenology and career/callings. I believe there are other links between these ideas and my interest in appreciative inquiry, leadership, and pedagogy. I am curious about the intersection of these various ideas and how at times one may be the process and at others it may be the content of the inquiry. Appreciative inquiry, for instance, can be the very topic of inquiry or it may serve as the means my which one could inquire into another topic. I believe the same could be said of phenomenology and pedagogy. I plan on continuing to explore the relationships among these ideas.

How did your paper change during the review process?

The paper and I were both enriched through the review process. The paper reflects some wonderful ideas that would never had occurred to me had it not been for Dr. Marvin Washington and the two anonymous reviewers. The inclusion of Lance Armstrong’s book and the ideas contained there in rounding out the section on meaning was a brilliant suggestion and added immensely to the final project. Further integration of rich philosophical as well as classic literature contributed to a manuscript that far and away exceeded anything that might have been created solely by my own hand.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and do this study again?

Well, through the review process I would have to say that whatever I wanted to change was accomplished. If there was one thing it would be to have more contact with the participants months and years after the writing was complete. The sheer interest in them as people and then as partners in the research process as well as, and more importantly, fellow planetary citizens would be a wonderful privilege. That would offer even deeper insights into who they were and who they are becoming and a fuller understanding of their experience of finding their calling. More important than any of this however, is the opportunity to remain in relationship with these magnificent servants as we all collectively evolve through the conversations that emerge.

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Work Worth Doing

Thomas A. Conklin, Gannon University, published “Work Worth Doing: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience of Discovering and Following One’s Calling” on September 13th, 2011 in the Journal of Management Inquiry’s OnlineFirst collection. Other articles available OnlineFirst can be found here.

The Abstract:

What is the meaning of our work? How do we find the work that is ours, work that is worth doing for us as individuals? This study attempted to answer these questions in understanding the experience of discovering one’s calling. It was undertaken with a group of professionals who work in areas serving the natural environment and used phenomenology to penetrate and apprehend the six themes of their experience. This article helps understand the meaning of their calling in its experiential components and offers support for its relevance in organizational life. Pseudonyms have been employed in this writing.

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