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Ten Ways to Grow a Backbone

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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People who act with integrity feel more in control of their environment.  Feeling this way is an important component of a sense of well-being.  When what you do is in line with what you believe, your self-esteem is higher.  Although you are taking more risks, you will paradoxically feel less fear and anxiety in the long run.  When you feel in control of your environment, you will be less likely to experience a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and depression.  This in turn will make it easier for you to take on challenges. 



The posting looks at - well the title speaks for itself. It is an academic take on the book by the same name [How to Grow a Backbone: Ten Strategies for Gaining Power and Influnce at Work, by Susan Marshall. [Published by McGraw-Hill Professional, 2000 ISBN 0809224941, 9780809224944] The posting below is  by Gina J Hiatt, Ph.D and is from the Academic Ladder - Get help with the climb, which can be found at: [] © 2009 Gina Hiatt, PhD. reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Business of Business Education Is More than Business


Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Ten Ways to Grow a Backbone


"Oh, good," I said to myself, "Here are some of the books I ordered.  I hope these are the ones about dealing with back pain."  The first book on the pile in the box was How to Grow a Backbone by Susan Marshall.  I did a double take, and then I realized it was a book I had ordered based on Meggin McIntosh's suggestion during her presentation "Antioxidants for Toxic Academic Work Environments" (recording still available).

In How to Grow a Backbone, Susan Marshall tells us why we need a strong backbone to thrive in the work world and what steps we need to take in order to develop one.  Although her book is tailored to the business world, it easily translates into the academic environment.

What follows is some of what I liked best from this book, organized and summarized in a way that I hope is helpful to graduate students, post docs and professors.  I highly recommend that you read it for yourself.  I started reading it to help my readers, but I ended up benefiting from it in surprising ways.  (Believe me, you need a backbone to be able to keep your head up in the world of Internet business.)

What is Backbone?

Marshall defines backbone as "firm and resolute character" (p.10).  In action, she says, it might look and feel like courage.  The word "integrity" also describes someone with strong backbone.  My belief is that everyone can grow a backbone, and that academia is a perfect place for you to learn how.

How Much of a Backbone Do You Have?

This might sound like a harsh question, but it's an important one.  Here are some questions that I've come up with that you can ask yourself in order to find out if you are backbone-deficient.

* Do you look at the world as if it's out to get you?

* Do you crumble when you get criticized or get negative feedback?  More importantly, since no one loves to be criticized, do you have trouble pulling yourself back together after a day or two?

* Do you spend a lot of time complaining about others in a non-constructive way?

* Do you worry too much about what other people think?

* Do you avoid taking a stand?

* Do your actions not match your stated goals?

* Do you let others distract you?

* Do you avoid all risk, even small ones?

* Do you let your day rule you, as opposed to you taking charge of what you do each day?

* Are you mean and nasty?

* Are you human?  By that I mean that we all need help in growing more backbone.  It's normal to take avoid risks and not want to get hurt.  We just need to challenge ourselves periodically to take the more difficult route, because of the advantages that can be gained by doing so.

What Are the Advantages of Growing More Backbone?

People who act with integrity feel more in control of their environment.  Feeling this way is an important component of a sense of well-being.  When what you do is in line with what you believe, your self-esteem is higher.  Although you are taking more risks, you will paradoxically feel less fear and anxiety in the long run.  When you feel in control of your environment, you will be less likely to experience a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and depression.  This in turn will make it easier for you to take on challenges.

The Three Components of Backbone

According to Marshall there are three components of backbone: competence, the ability to take purposeful risks, and confidence.  Each component interacts with the other.

1. Competence.  Be open to growing your ability in every aspect of your academic career, and not just knowledge of your field.  Seek out help in improving your writing abilities, time management skills, and ability to deal with others, for example.  Cultivate experiences that will help your competence grow.  List all your talents and abilities and be aware of how much you've accomplished in the past few years.

2. The ability to take purposeful risks.   As Marshall says, this is "the ability to engage in intelligent, purposeful ventures on behalf of your career."  By taking on appropriate challenges, you will not only succeed some of the time, but you will get practice in learning how to cope with setbacks, criticism and disappointment.

3. Confidence.   This is a natural outgrowth of the first two components, and will lead you to take on more challenges. Knowing that you can survive the negative consequences of the risks you have taken will actually increase your courage and self esteem.  Having more competence, of course, will make you more calmly confident in yourself and your abilities.  (We're talking here about real confidence, and not the blow-hard façade of confidence that you see in nasty, immature, bullying types of academics.)

Here are suggestions culled from How to Grow a Backbone, along with examples that I've inserted to help you relate it to the academic environment.

1. Observe and assess your environment.  Know the lay of the land.

a. If you're a graduate student, take an active role in finding out what it takes to get your degree.  Talk to more experienced students and to all the professors that have time for you, in order to develop a cognitive map.  What is the power structure in your department? Who will be most supportive of you?  What professor has a reputation as a good advisor?  Don't wait for others to share this kind of information with you, and don't assume you know it all.  Wendy Carter's Ta-Da software (see right hand column) is excellent for giving new students a mental map of the dissertation process.

b. Professors: find out exactly what it takes in order to get tenure, understand how decisions get made in your department, who are the people in power and what are their typical behaviors in meetings, and how this compares to what occurs at other schools like yours.

2. Observe others and yourself.  Listen carefully to the language that others use, and work on making your own as specific as possible.  Watch body language for hints of what's really going on. Be aware that the nastiest people are often the most spineless.  They know that it works in the short run to go with the low blow, and that it makes them look good, at least to other spineless people.

3. Take notes.  I love that Marshall included this, because I'm an obsessive note taker myself.  I believe in the power of the written word in sharpening your thoughts and helping you clarify and remember what matters.  Here are examples of where taking notes could make a difference.

a. You meet with your advisor, who mentions three changes s/he'd like to see in your chapter.  You take notes and write her/him a brief email afterwards, thanking him/her for the meeting and summarizing those suggestions, asking her/him to let you know if you didn't understand them correctly.  This is helpful later when your advisor asks you why you made those ridiculous changes.

b. You're in a boring departmental meeting when two colleagues suddenly go at it with each other.  Everyone is emotional.  You write down your observations and read your notes later to help you assess what happened.  You keep these notes as a record, when others have played the telephone game and changed the truth.  This will help you keep yourself level and be more aware of what's happening in your environment.

4. Mind map.  As many of you know, I love mind mapping as way to organize content that you are trying to write about.  But it also works well as you navigate through the thornier or more complex issues in life.   As Marshall points out,  "it helps to empty out what's crammed into your cranium," to "enhance the information you want to keep after you've sorted and organized it," (p. 86), and to allow "for unhampered and undisciplined free association of thought, with the assurance that by writing everything down, you can go back to sort, categorize, and make sense of what you produced" (p. 88).

a. Use mind mapping to plan what you want to accomplish in the next month or three-month period.  When you're done, you can then list and rank your priorities.

b. Make a mind map of your 5-year career plan.

5. Become clear on decisions you need to make, and then make them.  This can be scary because choosing one step in favor of another always carries some risk.  Learn to deal with the anxiety that this brings.  In the long run you'll find that making a decision feels better than not making one.  Be aware that your day is filled with decisions, big and small.  Often the small ones determine the trajectory of your day. ("Should I play this computer game or write during this free half hour?") And keep in mind that in some cases there is no right or wrong decision.  There is just the necessity of making a decision.  So flip a coin and move on.

6. Extract unimportant thoughts or issues from your priority list.  "Have a purpose for your thinking.  Any information that doesn't work toward your purpose is, at least for the moment, extraneous" (p. 93) Once you've separated these issues out, throw them out, either physically or mentally.

7. Advance with a purpose in mind.  Always ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?"  When you meet with your advisor or a mentor for a specific purpose, make sure that the goal of the meeting is met.  Come prepared with specific questions and make sure they get answered.

8. Seek out people who are functioning successfully, who get the results that you would like to get.  Role models will influence you and inspire you.

9. Ask purposeful, targeted, direct questions in a respectful way.

a. In a job interview, don't just worry about what they think of you.  Ask about things that matter to you, such as, "How do people in this department settle differences?"  Don't accept facile answers; probe or re-ask your question when needed.

b. Ask your advisor, "Could you be more specific about what you don't like about this chapter?"

c. Ask the departmental chair, "Could you put that in writing?"

d. Ask yourself questions, too.  Some examples are "What am I afraid of?" and "What do I want?"

10. Don't succumb to intimidation techniques from others.  This includes "killer phrase, such as "You don't know what you're talking about."  Marshall goes into detail about this, and I recommend that you read this if you are dealing with people who cope by using intimidation.

And one more note:  Academic leaders, such as department chairs, DGSs, and deans,  should be motivated to create an environment that fosters backbone in everyone.  I say this because backboneless environments cause "ideas to be lost, thoughts to go unspoken, frustrations to pile up, and consensus building to become a core competency" (p. 25).  That doesn't sound like a very good place to work or attend university, does it?

I've written and talked about the harshness of the academic environment before (see "How Academia Messes With Your Mind (and what to do about it)" - you can still get the MP3.) Therefore it's the ideal place to practice backbone-building skills.  I'm sure your backbone will be put to the test any day now - try one of these suggestions and let me know how it goes!

By Gina Hiatt, Ph.D. President and Founder of Academic Ladder, LLC,; and the Academic Writing Club,