Your Discipline Is a Frat
I wasn’t a frat guy in college. I was pretty much the opposite of a frat guy. But as I’ve slowly come to understand more about my own discipline, and the workings of academic life in general, I’ve come to believe that most of our professional communities operate pretty much the same way that frats do.
. . .
The social forces that influence, at least in part, how disciplinary communities operate dictate that sometimes those with talent and merit and those who actually succeed are not necessarily the same groups. In order to succeed within your discipline, you must not only be a competent expert, but you’re going to have to play the game — the networking, socializing, back-scratching game.
This is, come to think of it, kind of a trivial observation: in real life, this is almost always the case. The old saying about “It’s not what you know but who you know” is really highlighting that to be successful in any group — be it a corporation, government, whatever — you primarily advance by fitting in with and promoting the local culture. That’s something it took me quite a long time to figure out. I figured if I just did my work well (either in school or whatever) that I’d just naturally advance. That’s sort of true — I did advance as my work caught the attention of the powers that be — but that only goes a certain distance. Otherwise, there’s a big component of navigating the culture to really get ahead. I used to think of this, and still do to a certain extent, as totally abhorrent and would get something resembling sour grapes of others who advanced that I thought didn’t do the work as well as I. That minimizes socialization though, and part of accomplishing things as an organization involves mutual back scratching. This can be taken too far, of course, as embodied by the Peter Principle.
I’d also say it works elsewhere. I’m sure we all know of “nice guys” who lose the girl(s) to “bad boys”. Well, those bad boys (and girls!) might not be as super duper as those ‘nice’ guys* but they know how to play to what women want (or at least what attracts them in the first place).
It’s like I’ve always said, you have to really have a mindset geared toward academia to be successful in it, not just really really like the discipline itself.
* Actually, I’ve found that most ‘nice guys’ really aren’t; they just act like that because they’re too narcissistic and socially awkward to play the game successfully.