The Academic Ego: Memento Mori and Aiming for Humility against the Odds

I am sure I am not alone here.


This past week has been extraordinarily busy – and extraordinarily strange – for me. I have just passed the six month point in my PhD candidature and I was beginning to feel at home in academia, like I had earned my spot. However, a flurry of new successes assaulted me, unexpected, which left me anxious, panicked and unable to sleep for nights on end.

On Wednesday, I was advised of the success of my first academic publication. The same day, I attended a HDR Graduate Research Conference and enjoyed the success of my comrades, whilst strategically considering how I will encounter my impending Confirmation in late September. I also attended Supervision with my Primary Supervisor, a bright spot in my fortnight for the exciting back-and-forth of ideas and constructive criticism. He saw how hyperactive I was in our late afternoon appointment and in his infinite wisdom, offered me herbal tea (not coffee!) and avoided too much discussion about achievement and such things.


On Thursday, I tried to reflect on what I had gained and how hard I have worked over my life to get here, but the successes still felt hollow. Only fifty percent of peers, and other important people in my life, actually seemed genuinely happy for me. This struck me hard as I wondered what exactly I had done wrong. I struggle to maintain humility at times: could this be it? Did I gloat too much? Did I let the spirit of it all get to me? I could find no concrete answers. As with all subjectivity, all I could find were flawed suggestions that reflected positively upon me and my behavior; and negatively upon other people’s.

Across the weekend, as I conducted the requested amendments to the journal article and renovated my home for its sale, I continued my inquiry. It was in a physically humbling moment, with my arm down an old toilet trying to get it looking less disgusting, in which I realized that some people do not enjoy the wins of others and perceive them as threats. Perhaps I did crow, but it was warranted and successes need to be shared to be fully enjoyed. The colloquialism beloved in gaming circles for envy –  ‘butt-hurt’ – came to mind – amusing, considering what I was doing at the time.

I am beginning to appreciate the challenge of living the oxymoron concept: ‘humble academic’. It is what we should strive for – but in this challenge, we also must appreciate the limitations of humanity. The ego is a strange beast. Many social theorists and philosophers over modernity have mused upon this – and how egotism can overpower the best person. Lincoln perhaps said it best when he noted how power could destroy a man’s (sic) humility. To fully test integrity is to challenge it with the addition of power.

I won’t lie: I like how others perceive me when they think I am powerful. It fills me with confronting feelings of being admired – which is not wholly positive for a self-confessed ‘attention whore’. But I need to also temper these feelings with the Latin reminder of ‘you will die’: memento mori. As seen in Dante, Milton and also the beautiful works of Blake, earthly vanity is stripped harshly from one’s self after the material body expires. What occurs after death is unknown to mortals: but we can sure that what we have on earth is not taken with us. Personally – this is getting a little deep for my self-concept and general approach to life, therefore I will end the post reflecting on ATHF’s Dr Weird and his absurdity…