I do wonder why it is like this, and it's childish to wonder like this. In fact, climbing the crystal mountain of academic excellence, what one constantly finds on the way are the bodies of those who didn't manage to climb any higher. Naturally, the whole Pareto chart (if we treat it as a diagram of quality, competence, efficiency or success) chiefly reflects the distribution of the bodies. And the crystal mountain of academic excellence is, like in the Buddhist monk's dream, a mountain of sculls.
Somehow, across these last two months, the wisdom that is coming to me concerns mainly sculls and dead bodies. Even if, seen under slightly more optimistic light, it speaks about the ways people took in order to achieve that precise spot on the curve they did manage to occupy. There is the way they climbed and the way they didn't climb, the glass half full and the glass half empty. And now, if I stopped to jot down some of my own musings, concerning what I do believe now the right strategies are, it is only to read this post later on, and see the difference of perspective. And that's only natural, if I'm still climbing.
Perhaps there are more strategies to fail than those to succeed. Perhaps there is only one simple strategy to succeed, but unfortunately, the simplest things are often the most inaccessible ones.
Well, que sais-je... Perhaps I can only look down to see things I know are wrong, blinded by more enlightening truths. I can see what's wrong with a colleague who, surprised by the information that it takes less than 2 hours to fly from France to Poland, confessed to me that she had never crossed the frontier of her own country. Another one sets himself as a target to start publishing in French, hoping that this will put his CV on a new level.
People constantly hope and design aims, persuaded that reaching those thresholds will bring about a change. Many drop out by the way; but those who reach their thresholds face the fact that the change is usually much tinier than expected. And they keep asking themselves: what the hell can make a real change?!
My colleagues in the old faculty try to join circles. They believe that having some kind of collaboration with Oxford and Cambridge will make them great like Oxford and Cambridge. That sounds very much like an old story of Balzac, and Stendhal, and Flaubert, -- and Andersen.
Once or twice I'd taken a trip from my old faculty; we had been in the SOAS for a week. At a given moment, a PhD student asked me, deeply puzzled: "So this is the famous SOAS?!". And I said "well", cryptically like always, "this is the building".
We travelled to London and we saw the building, also from inside (not really a great interior). But we were very far from seeing the SOAS. It was perhaps a bit like seeing the zoo with the animals gone to Africa for their summer vacation. Or visiting a mosque with a Rainbow Tours excursion. These are shortcuts to the world, that give access to its ersatz.
Perhaps these things are not so very difficult to understand. And yet I see so many people closed in their crystal bubbles, stretching their hands to reach things. And later on they say: I have been there. I do know things. And put them in their CVs. Yet on the other hand, I wouldn't like to be that colleague who never crossed the border... Of course.
I've recently discovered a ranking in which my old university is noted as one of the best. It is a relatively new thing, I suppose, or it was not widely known before. The ranking is called EEECA, which stands for Emergent Eastern Europe and Central Asia... Somehow I fancy I would be in no ranking whatsoever, rather than ranked together with Kazakhstan. But this is the world we live in, and it's better to see it than to ignore it.
Nonetheless, I suppose that the relational approach to things (together with whom you are in the group, in what cluster you are put) is the source of many problems. The ranking is only a reflection of the reality. One cannot change one's position in it trying to operate on the ranking (the Saudis, as I've heard, tried to pay up their position, but they did it only once; next year they started to buy up scientifically minded Pakistanis). When one operates on the reality, the ranking rearranges by itself.
That's evident, but trying to boost up by sticking to the right people is deeply human; people make this mistake over and over again. Perhaps in fact it would be a great strategy, if you could make it work. But normally it does not work. Birds of a feather do flock together, but it's very hard to join them by cheating. You may blissfully go on feeding among them for a while, but sooner or later, the flock flies away, leaving the odd birds behind. I would excuse some ambitious PhD students, who love to ask questions to Judith Butler in a conference, for the bliss of the instantaneous illusion of "being it", but the adult ones should know that there is always someone in the shadow who puts you back in the right ranking where you belong.
In reality, I believe, there is only one kind of "powder" that does work. Said called it "the mastery of language". It's a kind of discursive skill that serves, essentially, to write. Printed things. Books. The books you write take you wherever you aspire to go -- if only you know the way of proper writing. I know there is one last secret hidden in this. It is in the word "proper". Of course I know people who wrote books, even twenty and more of them, without ever reaching anywhere close to the top. Because it was not the proper writing. But of one thing I am certain: all those whom I see on the top of the crystal mountain are there because they had written properly. Certainly not because they were at the right time in the right place. Not because they had more influential friends or joined more prestigious circles. Not because they received greater number of most prestigious grants and fellowships. Not because their research projects absorbed greater sums of money. Not because they were deans, or directors, or project leaders, or coordinators, or presidents of more things. Not because they spoke more often at the conferences. Not because they spoke more languages. Not because they published more papers. Not because they joined more learned societies. Not because they had more brilliant ideas, or intuitions. Not because they were more competent. Not because they worked harder, or stayed longer at their desks. Not even because they read more books -- reading books does count only as far as they teach one how to write properly. It is the properly written page that utterly puts you on the safe side. Because the properly written page is what remains.
All the other things I've mentioned count only among those who are outside the enchanted sphere of the proper writing. Those trivia are the refuge of the prevailing number of people, this is why they appear to have such a great face value. No wonder it took me twenty years in the academia to understand this. Or to fully acknowledge that I'd always known it.