The title is a phrase that my mother used throughout my childhood whenever I would play the “but so and so does this” and “But I deserve” and “It’s not fair” cards. “Measuring with a yard stick” was short hand for, “You need to stop worrying so much about what other people are doing and worry about your own damned self.” Let’s give you an example of a conversation as it might have happened:
Crazy: I’m so mad because I worked so much harder at practice than Jenny but then the coach told her she did really well at practice and said nothing to me! SHE’S MEAN AND SHE SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME THAT I DID WELL! IT’S NOT FAIR!
Crazy’s Mom: You need to stop measuring with a yard stick. Did you do your best?
Crazy’s Mom: DID YOU DO YOUR BEST?
Crazy: Well, yeah….
Crazy’s Mom: Well, that’s the only thing that matters. You need to stop measuring with a yard stick.
-End Scene –
Now you may wonder why I’m telling you this story (especially if you know my mom, as she totally measures with a yard stick. You don’t even know how many times I’ve had to listen to her tell me about her stupid coworker Melinda.) Anyway.
In spite of the fact that my mother is a big fat hypocrite, I internalized this whole measuring with a yard stick thing. Not that I don’t have those feelings sometimes, but I know that they are wrong and that they should be suppressed immediately. Because what matters is that I’m doing my best. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing. Even if it pisses me off. I need to do my best. Period.
So I had a conversation with a colleague tonight in which she was measuring with a yardstick. And while I didn’t use that phrase, the responses that I gave were all about “you need to care about your own self and not about how you measure up to other people.” The problem, of course, is that this colleague of mine hadn’t been socialized since birth to feel like worrying about measuring up to other people is wrong – a sin even. So my advice didn’t get the reaction that I’d wanted for it to have. Though I think the person did listen in the end, at least to some extent.
But here is the problem with people who weren’t schooled in the “Measuring with a Yard Stick is WRONG” fashion. They make themselves miserable. Especially in the academy. Especially in the academy if you’re at a public university where you can look up people’s salaries. Here’s the thing: because I knew that it would encourage me to “measure with a yard stick,” I never looked at my colleagues’ salaries pre-tenure. Now I do it in a sort of macabre, “I look because I cannot look away” sort of a way, but I don’t actually care. I now understand what salary compression means, and I understand how my university spends its money. I understand that if I’m unhappy with my salary my only recourse is to get another job. But the whole “It’s not fair!” business? It’s a waste of energy. (Note: this is why I work as hard as I work. Because I want the option of saying “fuck you” rather than “it’s not fair.” “Fuck you” would get me a lot farther. And if it’s not worth it to say “fuck you,” then I’ve got to suck it up. I get that.)
But the point is, if you’re measuring with a yard stick, most of the time you don’t have all the information. Sure, you feel wrongly done by, but most of the time you don’t realize that the other person might actually be doing better than you are doing. Because you don’t have all the information that the person doing the evaluating has. Now, that might not be true, but lots of times it is. The point is, you don’t have control over it whether you’re being screwed or not. All you have control over is your own performance, your own decisions. So why waste your energy on shit that you can’t control? Why drive yourself crazy over shit you can’t control?
I get really enraged when people say, as an alibi for the crappy salaries that professors earn, that “none of us got into this for the money.” I care a lot about being fairly compensated for the work that I do. I am in it for the money, at least to some extent. But I in no way believe that the money that I make relates to what other people do. I think it relates to what I do. Maybe this is why, when I looked at the salary data that the “measuring with a yard stick” colleague sent me, I felt positively pleased about where I was situated. The work that I do has translated into my compensation. I knew that before I compared myself to others, but whatever. It’s still nice to have that confirmed.
The point is this, though: I do think that part of the reason I feel good about my situation is because I haven’t been spending my time and energy measuring with a yard stick. Instead, I’ve spent that time accomplishing things for myself. Things that enrich me, and things that satisfy me. And yes, I’m in a totally privileged position, as a faculty member with tenure. But I honor that privilege with the work that I do, and I’m not spending time on spite that takes away from what I can accomplish with that privilege. (No, I’m not a saint, I feel spiteful. But it’s not my predominant emotion or my most time-consuming one.)
So my best piece of advice I can give to people on the tenure-track who are not yet tenured? Don’t look at the salaries of your colleagues. Instead, use that energy to work your ass off. And if you’re pissed when you finally do see those salaries? Then you’ll be in a position to leave.