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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.)

How Do You Grow More Backbone?  Ten Steps You Can Take

Click here to read the rest of this article >>>



© Gina Hiatt, PhD.
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grow a backboneHow to Grow a Backbone:  10 Strategies for Gaining Power and Influence at Work,
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*From a quote on p. 110 of the Nov. 3, 2008 issue of the New Yorker, in a book review by Dan Chiasson, of Words in Air:  The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, by Thomas Travisan with Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)