Figure Out What People Need

What you do for others (and yourself) matters the most.

Harvard professor. Corporate attorney. Brain surgeon. Detective. Olympic gold medalist. We love our titles, don’t we? There’s just one catch. Your job title can kill you, if you let it.

There’s a reason why I don’t use my “PhD” that much.

First off, half my friends have one. So it’s not special. The other half don’t give a shit. And anyone who doesn’t know me yet?

They don’t care, either.

Here’s what they do care about — what I can do for them. Make them laugh and cry at the same time. Or at least make them smirk.

Make them aspire. And think.

This means more than any job title or bio description.

My students definitely don’t care about my qualifications, and they shouldn’t. They only care what they can learn from me. So regardless of what you do for a living, there’s one inescapable truth:

Figure out what people want, or need. Or both.

Give it to them.

That’s the recipe for success, and a better world.

I’ve met all too many people in PhD programs who turn the letters into a rainbow. Once on a summer job, I even worked with someone who bragged about being a PhD student. He had no idea I had a PhD.

Oops. I forgot to mention it.

(Yeah, lots of professors still have to work summer gigs.)

This guy bragged constantly. It was hilarious. On a staff of 50, literally everyone knew he was “this close” to a PhD. They also knew that he tried to drive a golf cart down a flight of brick stairs.

Your title means nothing.

What you do means everything.

Some professors make a huge deal out of their degree. They insist on their class addressing them as “doctor.” One frenemy of mine used to make a point of subtly pointing out who in our department had three letters after their name, and who didn’t.

Herein lies one of our biggest problems.

Solipsism. We conflate leadership and authority with power. And we conflate power with prestige.

And prestige is one of the most worthless nouns in our language. Prestige is what drives people to list all of their awards and bylines on their websites. It’s what causes people to brag about the length of their resume. Or in my field, the curriculum vitae — a list of all the shit you’ve published.

Mine’s about ten pages.

It doesn’t include my blog, or books I wrote for fun.

Most importantly, it doesn’t include my new daughter. My biggest accomplishment so far.

Something I never considered myself capable of.

But you can’t list “capable parent” on your resume or CV.

Too bad. Because parenting is way f*cking harder than earning a PhD. I mean, coming from someone who’s done both.

Still, my university requires me to attend graduation ceremonies every year. A celebration of titles. It’s a miserable experience for someone on the spectrum. The shouting and cheering gives me an earthquake migraine.

Honestly, I’d rather listen to my kid cry all night.

It amazes me that someone in their early 20s wants to spend half the day cooped up in a grimy gym, wearing what amounts to a garbage bag. A garbage bag that costs three hundred bucks.

It’s worth pointing out that I skipped all three of my graduation ceremonies. Bachelor. Master. Doctorate.

While everybody else was stuffed inside a stadium, I ate lobster and sipped champagne at 10 am. My university live streamed the hooding ceremony. So I had that up on one screen, and Netflix on the other. Because I could. Now that’s what I call multi-tasking.

Later that night, I brought my own bottle of champagne to a party and drank it while playing Wii games and eating homemade crab cakes.

Yeah, man. I cooked my own lobster. Not live. That’d be a little dark. Nonetheless, I’m aware of the irony. A great day for me wasn’t such a great day for sea critters, whose lives had recently ended.

Just goes to show, one species’ funeral is another’s birthday party. One day we might be the lobster.

So I enjoy the decadent days (or moments) while I can, and don’t worry about job titles. Because in a few decades, I’m pretty sure titles won’t matter anymore. Like, at all.

What’ll matter is what you can do, and how you think. Those are the only two things that ever really mattered.

My point? If you’re going to do something for you, really do it. Don’t waste a second in some stinky gymnasium, if that’s not really where you want to be. Celebrate your accomplishments somewhere else. Instead of a graduation ceremony, what about skipping straight to the party? Instead of regalia, you get to dress up as whatever the f*ck you want.

Except Pikachu.

Fine, him too.

Way back when, my doctoral advisor did manage to convince me to sit through a smaller ceremony held by the college of arts and letters.

He wanted me to feel the true weight of my doctoral degree. You see, for him and lots of other people, ceremonies and titles and degrees mean something. My advisor needed to see all of his protege walk across some kind of stage and collect a piece of paper.

And I guess as much as I wish otherwise, titles still mean a little to me. So I f*cking went to the smaller ceremony.

After all, it wouldn’t last as long. Right?


What I remember is a truly bad commencement speech. A local CEO alum tried to convince an auditorium that a degree in English wasn’t worthless. It wasn’t that I disagreed. It’s just that she was so bad at explaining the value of the humanities, she made them seem pointless.

At least it was the last ceremony I’d ever have to sit through.

So I thought.

Nobody told me that professors have to sit through these things every year. They’re so loud. I’m practically ready to kill someone by the end.

I’m doomed.

There’s one small upside. I get to wear Jedi robes. Doctoral regalia looks different from your ordinary cap and gown.

We have extra stripes on the sleeves, and a hood. The more pretentious professors look down on me for calling them Jedi robes. They correct me. “Regalia,” they say, as if I’m an undeserving buffoon.

Fuck ’em. Anything flowy that comes with a hood is a Jedi robe.

You’re supposed to pay a thousand dollars or something for your doctoral regalia, to the university bookstore.

My first year on the tenure-track, I couldn’t afford that. Hello, Amazon. It even turns out that nobody cares what color you wear. Technically, you’re supposed to don your university’s official colors. Nobody really checks up on whether your robe matches your alma mater.

F*ck it, I’m wearing red. It’s my color.

Red Jedi robes. Just for me. Because if I have to sit through this shit for the rest of my life, I’m doing it my way.

Now that I’m tenured, I can probably bring a lobster and a bottle of champagne. Anyone going to stop me?

You might wonder why I chose penguins for this blog post. Because they’re always wearing a tuxedo. Whether they want to, or not. Penguins are always dressed for the occasion. And yet, they don’t care what anyone thinks most of the time. Neither should you.

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