Per Ardua ad Alta

Less than a week to go until I join the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. It still doesn’t feel real, but I am feeling excited and eager. I thought this would be a good moment to share a few thoughts and reflections.

My first reflection is that it is bittersweet to be leaving Liverpool John Moores University’s School of Psychology. My colleagues there are people I look up to as professionals and were/are warm and very generous with their time. It’s one of those teaching teams where you just feel like everyone has each other’s back and wants to see you do well. You don’t get that everywhere. It’s also the kind of place where people will publish a paper in Nature and not think to mention it. Standard. Everyone merits respect. I have also had some amazing students there too. For example, one student who I was supposed to be supervising this coming year has spent all summer working with me to get a head start on her dissertation. I can’t tell you what she’s doing, but I assure you, it is awesome. And finally, management. I mean, you’re supposed to hate your boss. But to be honest, I think management are lovely people who, if they can’t do you a good turn, would not do you a bad one. They have such heavy workloads managing things in such a large department, but you always feel like you can knock on their door and ask a stupid question to make sure you get things right when it matters. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities given to me, and I hope I was worth my salt. It was such a pleasure to work at LJMU for the better part of two years.

Secondly, it is tempting to be intimidated when joining a great institution like the University of Birmingham. This is a place that produced eleven Nobel laureates, has galleries on campus hosting works by Picasso, Monet, and Van Gogh, and typically makes more than £700m annually. No pressure, eh? Moreover, my new boss has an OBE, and members of the Centre are Dames, Baronesses, and Lords. Our students are school Principals, army Majors, PhD holders etc. We’re expected to be the best in the world at what we do. And who am I to be the best in the world at anything? I’m the son of a fisherman who grew up in a council estate in rural Ireland. I’m not supposed to be here, so to speak.

Third: I can’t let the above paralyse me. I’ve been harping on for years about the importance of doing what is meaningful as a way of flourishing and maintaining wellbeing. Well, now I’m working with the best in the world in the most important of topics, and it doesn’t get much more meaningful than that. Intimidation is a vice of deficiency, and I cannot let it dictate what I do. Indeed, contrary to those reasons to be intimidated, everyone at the Centre has been very welcoming to me already, and so I already feel supported and enabled.

Fourth reflection: Nonetheless, congruent with those anxieties, I am assured that there are high expectations of me. However, this expectation somehow doesn’t really feel intimidating, as this is how it should be. I got into this game called academia with romanticised notions of what it was all about (I grew up watching Good Will Hunting, A Beautiful Mind etc.), but even those misguided notions entailed working at the highest level and some degree of eustress. I could never be a jobsworth or an ideologue, even a well-paid one.

Fifth reflection: I think I have something to contribute here. I was recently lucky enough to be awarded the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS) Early Career Mentorship Award, which aims to support members to gain positions within eminent universities like this one. I think that CBS and its mission to promote flourishing through valued actions is congruent with the mission of the Jubilee Centre. As such, I will be able to uniquely contribute to the science of character (conceptualised as the nexus of our values) and its effect on wellbeing. My research was already heading in that direction anyway. It feels like a good fit, as there is now a frontier through which I might lead the way, and I know how. I am excited and full of confidence, but taking nothing for granted.

Sixth and penultimately, I believe that the real work starts now. Over 13 years as a student, then practicing psychologist, then postgraduate student, then lecturer, I have learned a thing or two through hard graft and made lots of mistakes. If I began this position earlier, I might not have had the tools to be competent. Now I at least realise how much I do not know, but also have some expertise to lend to others.

Finally, I need to count my lucky stars. There are a handful of people who took a punt on me when they had no reason to other than that I asked. Even then, there are people whose competence I could only dream of emulating who never got an opportunity like I have now; the stars did not align, so to speak. Letting those people down is not an option. They generously gave me a hand up so that I could eventually go “above” them, in a manner of speaking. To me, this means that I must do the same for others in future, be it students or colleagues. “Pay it forward”, and all that. A good friend or colleague or boss does not begrudge you moving on to greater things because that is their achievement also. Any parent will understand this sentiment, as a good parent will feel it in relation to their children. As the beneficiary of having good friends, colleagues, and bosses (and parents!), all I can do is remain humble, hungry, grateful, and optimistic, and never fall for the delusion that it was all my own doing to get this wonderful opportunity.

I hope this has been useful reading for others in forming a schema for what their career is, in context, and perhaps how to go about it. Time will tell how it pans out of course. It just seemed like a good point in my career to stop and reflect, and maybe I will do so again in the future. Here goes. Per Ardua ad Alta.

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